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Why isn’t Sonny Werblin in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

WerblinSonny043010_optBY EVAN WEINER
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
COMMENTARY

A quick exchange with Joe Namath this week got me to thinking. Why isn't Namath's old boss David A. "Sonny as in Money" Werblin enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio? Werblin, the New Jersey guy, is pretty much a forgotten figure in the history of pro football even though both Werblin and Namath helped create the Super Bowl as a non-official national holiday in the United States.

Both the New York Giants and Jets are looking at draft picks and free agents and will have mini-camps this month at multi-million dollar training complexes in East Rutherford and Florham Park. The two teams have built a new stadium that cost over a billion dollars and will manage a real estate around the facility. Werblin's fingerprints 19 years after he died are all over the place within the businesses of the Jets, the Giants and the National Football League.

Sonny Werblin along with his partners Leon Hess, Townsend Martin, Donald Lillis and Philip Iselin bought the bankrupt American Football League New York Titans franchise in 1963, renamed the team the Jets, and changed pro football although the quintet didn't alter the history of the game the minute they bought the franchise. That would not happen for about a year and it was circumstance that brought Werblin to the forefront.

The National Football League or the initials NFL of the days prior to Werblin's arrival in pro football, and today have just one thing in common — the name or the initials. As the David Letterman frequent guest and Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Arthur J. Donovan (by way of the Grand Concourse in da Bronx) who played for the original Baltimore Colts in 1950, the New York Yankees in 1951, the Dallas Texans in 1952 and the Colts again from 1953-61 (the original Colts, the Yankees and Texans all folded) pointed out.

National Football League owners had a 12 team league in the 1950s and none of the 12 owners could figure out what to do with their business. Chicago's George Halas and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney along with Bert Bell have been glorified as football deities over the decades but the truth is that without Lamar Hunt the game might have strangled itself financially.

There was no forward thinking from Halas, Rooney, the Giants Tim Mara or NFL Commissioner Bert Bell in those days. They put a shingle up, "Football on Sunday" six times a year for six home games except in Chicago where there were two teams.

Hunt was unable to buy the Chicago Cardinals from the Bidwill family and move the team to Dallas. Bud Adams was unable to buy the Chicago Cardinals from the Bidwill family and move the team to Houston. Neither Hunt nor Adams could get an NFL expansion franchise in Dallas and Houston even though Halas and Rooney chaired an expansion committee starting in 1956. By 1959, Hunt decided he had enough and asked Adams if he wanted to join him in forming the fourth American Football League.

The AFL started play in 1960 and pushed the stodgy old football men into a different business plan, one they never wanted to explore. The AFL went to new cities and had a better TV plan. There were now two leagues and the older National Football League played follow the leader to the new league when it came to television. The AFL was able to sign a contract with the American Broadcasting Company, ABC, with each team sharing revenue equally. The AFL deal technically violated antitrust laws and was not originally a Hunt idea. Hunt borrowed a concept from Branch Rickey who was out of baseball and trying to form a third major league, the Continental Baseball League, and one of Rickey's ideas was for the 12-team Continental League owners to share national TV revenue equally.

Rickey's idea died but there are three living monuments to his league. The New York Mets, the Houston Colt 45s (now Astros) and the National Football League's "leaguethink" business plan.

The old line NFL owners didn't know what to do with TV as late as 1960 and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had to persuade Giants owner Jack Mara along with the Chicago Bears Halas and the Los Angeles Rams owner Daniel Reeves that sharing TV revenues instead of having teams have their own networks was economically better for the league. He did just that and got Congress to approve the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 which allowed the NFL to sell all 14 teams as one to a TV network.

In those days, it was just CBS and NBC.

Rozelle worked out a deal for the 1962 season which brought the 14 NFL owners more than $4 million that year and beyond. In late 1963 Rozelle pitted CBS against NBC in a battled for a long term TV agreement and this is where circumstances came into play. The NFL was in a battle with the AFL for players and control of football and a big money TV deal would give them cash to go after talented players coming out of college. Rozelle signed a big money deal with CBS and William Paley in 1964 and that deal infuriated NBC's David Sarnoff.

Sarnoff wanted revenge.

Sarnoff had worked with Lew Wasserman's MCA where Werblin was employed. MCA was placing TV shows on Sarnoff's network. Sarnoff and Werblin had a relationship and Werblin became the point guy between the AFL and NBC. Werblin knew TV and entertainment inside out and knew that football was more than just a game play, it was entertainment and it was TV programming. That was not something that was an easy sell to football men who in those days viewed football as a game. It was easy to understand the football owners mentality of the day. Football business operations were open between July and December. In the 1950s, if someone wanted to buy a Chicago Bears season ticket package in April, they would have to hunt down George Halas at his sporting goods store. Nobody protected team logos because no one was thinking of selling t-shirts, underwear and hats with team logos.

Werblin got the deal done with Sarnoff, which brought the AFL $7 million annually between 1965 and 1969. Sarnoff also advanced money to AFL teams so they could sign players out of college, which Sarnoff knew would enhance the AFL on NBC. With some of that money (and revenues Werblin and his fellow Jets owners suddenly got from larger crowds at the new Shea Stadium starting in 1964), Werblin signed Namath to a three-year $427,000 deal, the largest contract ever given to a player at that point.

Namath was going to be the face of the Jets and ultimately the face of the American Football League. The Werblin-Sarnoff connection changed football and for that alone, Werblin should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Werblin changed the dynamics of pro football and eventually the two leagues merged with the formation of the Super Bowl as one of the after effects of the June 8, 1966 accord between the warring leagues.

Ironically, Werblin, Hess, Martin, Lillis and Iselin were not interested in joining the NFL because the merger agreement required them to pay the Giants $10 million for "invading" the New York territory. Werblin never did see the Jets win the Super Bowl as one of the team owners as he was bought out prior to the 1968 season, the year Namath led the Jets to a Super Bowl championship.

Namath's guarantee that the Jets would beat Baltimore in Super Bowl III was the foundation that built the Super Bowl franchise.

Werblin was permanently exiled from pro football but the story didn't end there. In 1971, the New Jersey guy Werblin was back but this time as a state employee and again Werblin changed the NFL. Werblin convinced Giants owner Wellington Mara to commit to move the Giants across the river to wetlands off of Route 3. The deal was inked in November 1972. Yankee Stadium was slated to be rebuilt and Mara's Giants played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven in 1974 and shared Shea Stadium with the Jets in 1975. Mara had a new stadium in 1976 and Giants revenues exploded.

Werblin left the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 1977. Hess moved his Jets to the Meadowlands in 1984.

Werblin's pro football career was rather short as an owner compared to those of Mara, Halas and Rooney, the NFL's Mount Rushmore, but he was far more a visionary than any of the faces on the NFL's Mount Rushmore. Halas last had a real idea in 1925 when he signed Red Grange and put him on tour with the Bears. Grange's appearance before more than 70,000 people at the Polo Grounds in a game against the Giants gave Tim Mara the money he needed to keep the Giants solvent and in business. Rooney was a grand old guy of the game but in the 1950s, his Pittsburgh Steelers franchise was the last stop for a player. If a player was cut by Pittsburgh, his football career probably was at an end. Ironically because of Werblin, Pittsburgh eventually was able to spend top dollars on players. Rooney was paid three million dollars to move the Steelers from the NFL to the American Football Conference prior to 1970. Rooney used that money to invest in players and scouting and won four Super Bowls.

Werblin is in the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame, but there should be a bust of him in Canton. Without Werblin, Namath might have ended up in St. Louis or maybe the New York Giants. The Titans might have been sold to someone who knew football but not the TV business and the Super Bowl might have just been another championship game without the "wow" factor which Namath as the Jets quarterback, who was signed to a record contract by Werblin, gave the game. Without Werblin, the Giants might not be in New Jersey and Hess might have looked elsewhere for a stadium with clean bathrooms.

Werblin is more than a footnote in NFL history. He was a game changer.

Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator, and lecturer on the "Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached for speaking engagements at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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