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A New League And A New Team Part 2

AFL Series #2

Football game between the New York Titans and San Diego Char Photo by Charles Payne/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

When we last left our hero Harry Wismer he had just bought an AFL team (the franchise cost is never announced). Each team tendered a check for $25,000 to the AFL, then posted a $100,000 bond to be forfeited if the franchise defaulted.

This was the fourth time in American history that a league with the name “American Football League” had been formed to compete with the NFL. The first was formed in 1926 by a man nicknamed “Cash and Carry.” His real name was Charles C. Pyle. Pyle was the agent for the great American athlete Red Grange (the Galloping Ghost). Pyle had been thwarted in attempts to buy an NFL franchise so he formed his own nine team league. They had great players to attract fans, including Elmer Layden and Harry Stuhldreher, who were two of the famed Four Horsemen, along with Grange. The league lasted only a year but Pyle gained entry into the NFL when the league absorbed the New York Yankees. That franchise lasted only three years. Red Grange (who sat out the 1928 season with an injured leg) returned to the league to play with the Bears franchise until 1934. He later coached them from 1942-48.

The other two leagues named the AFL were in 1936-37 and 1940-41 but both were not well funded and no real threat to the established NFL.

Behold the Titans

The Jets owner Harry Wismer was the person who came up with the team name “Titans” even though they had a contest to name the new team in New York. Harry wasn’t going to let someone else name his team, the contest was just a ruse to get some free publicity for his new venture. Harry knew that he would be fighting for space on the sports page with his cross town rivals, the NFL’s New York Giants, so he named his team the Titans because “Titans are bigger and better than Giants.”

Harry Wismer was an interesting man to say the least. He was the play by play announcer for the first prime time nationally televised NFL game on the old DuMont Network back in 1953. Wisner was the kind of man who liked to draw attention to himself any way he could. In talking with him Wismer usually did most of the talking, many times exaggerating his importance. He was a bit of an egomaniac. Harry was also known to over indulge in alcohol. He would drink early and often during the day. His favorite drink was a “Bullshot,” a concoction that consisted of Vodka and beef broth.

Attracting attention to himself was paramount to Wismer. He would enter a room and greet one person after another with “Congratulations!” with the thinking that everyone had something they could be congratulated for. As Wismer said ”Congratulations can mean anything; it rings a note, it’s wonderful, and it’s a great opening line.” I say “Congratulations!” and they say “How did you know?” and I say “I keep pace”.

He was also known to start rumors at parties. Anything could come out of his mouth. “Hey did you hear they shot Fidel Castro?” “Yeah, it was his brother Raul, they weren’t getting along.” If someone would call him out on his outrageous claims he would just say “well that’s what I heard.” When the Titans exited a plane after a game he would make sure the public address announcer would say “Harry Wismer and the New York Titans are now arriving at gate #12.” Other times when he was alone he would have himself paged: “Would the owner of the Titans Harry Wismer please pick up the page telephone.” Harry would then announce to those around him “That’s me, I’m the owner of the Titans.”

Harry Wismer was a household name to sports fan around the country from his announcing pro and college football games on radio and TV. That industry insight and fandom did not go unnoticed by TV moguls. In 1941 Wismer was named the sports director for NBC’s second radio network “Blue.” Blue shortly thereafter became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), as the company moved into the television industry. That name recognition along with his familiarity with all the TV networks would serve the new AFL well in the future. Wismer had grown in stature as a celebrity right along with the TV viewing audience. He became wealthy after he invested much of his money in Brunswick Bowling stock just before a bowling boom hit the United States.

Television was the new media outlet, much like smartphones were only a few years ago. The older you are the less you seem to understand the new electronics and how to use them for your best interests. The NFL was born before TV so they were slow to understand its value. Each NFL team would hold the TV rights to its own team and separately negotiate the compensation they would receive. This made the income from TV vary from team to team quite a lot.

In 1947 George Halas of the Bears sold his TV rights for $900 a game. Even Paul Brown, who was one of the more insightful owners in the league, only received $5,000 for the TV rights to the Cleveland Browns for the entire year in 1950. As late as 1956 the Green Bay Packers only received $35,000 for their entire season rights.

Because of his affiliations with ABC and NBC, and his connections across the entire broadcast industry, Harry Wismer was named chairman of the AFL television committee. It was a wise move. The NFL had been working with the TV industry since 1939, but Harry was coming in 20 years later with more knowledge than everyone in the NFL combined.

The first thing Harry did was to make a plan that in retrospect was foolish for his own franchise. Harry was in by far the largest TV market. He had an opportunity to negotiate the most lucrative TV deal for himself. He had insider knowledge of the industry, and he knew the value of the burgeoning sports industry in a growing TV market. Yet he made a plan that ignored his self-interest but benefited the league as a whole.

Harry told his fellow owners that it would be best to make a TV contract for the league as a whole and not by individual teams. By doing so he agreed to an even split of the TV revenue given to each team. Harry knew that for the league to survive all the teams would have to be prosperous. Harry realized that teams in small markets like Buffalo and Denver could never sign a local TV contract lucrative enough to support the team during its formative years. He gave away a lot of money he could have made above what any of the other teams could have separately negotiated. The previous football league that had tried to compete with the NFL derived all of their income from ticket sales. To have another revenue stream into the league from TV that was so fruitful was vital to the AFL’s success as a whole.

Wismer worked closely with commissioner Foss (who he argued with often). They traveled to Madison Avenue to tout the league and secure advertisers for each team. Harry also worked closely with Jay Michaels (father of famous announcer Al Michaels) of Music Corporation of America to find a TV network for the league. Since he had close ties early in his career to ABC it seemed like a great place to start. ABC was now a network of its own and wanted to compete with NBC and CBS, who had a stranglehold on televised football. The negotiations were intense, animated and sometimes humorous.

Harry met in his apartment (which doubled as his office) at 227 Park Avenue in New York with Tom Moore of ABC. During negotiations Harry told Moore he wanted a total of $2 million a year for the league. Moore told him that he was delusional and would not meet that offer. Harry then exploded out of his chair with such force that the chair tipped over. Harry stormed out of the room and through a door. In his haste Harry had accidentally opened and entered his closet door instead of the door to the hallway. Wismer actually stayed in there for 10 minutes before he came out to continue negotiations.

The theatrics must have worked because soon after the incident the two agreed on a 5 year $10.625 million contract. The agreement was subject to renewal every year. Payments started with $1.785 million the first year, then increased each year thereafter. The contract also had a caveat that stated the AFL was to supply at least half the TV advertising slots. Harry had already set up a deal with the advertising firm of Young and Rubicam to administer the advertising that Wismer and Foss had negotiated earlier. Once that was done the league was able to finalize the contract.

This contract was the engine that allowed the AFL to become financially viable. Whereas MCA was helpful in securing some aspects of this deal, the real hero was Harry Wismer. While Harry’s time as leader of the Titans (as you will see) might be viewed as a failure, the AFL and the Jets would never have gotten off the ground if not for his solid work. The AFL and now the NFL owes much of its success to Harry Wismer and his revenue sharing innovation.

This innovation was so profitable for the AFL it was soon copied by the NFL. In 1959 the NFL had combined TV revenue of $3.5 million. Between the 1960-61 seasons Pete Rozelle was able to sign a two year contract for the entire NFL with CBS for $9.3 million. This bonanza in revenue for the NFL would not have happened if not for the AFL and Harry Wismer.

The AFL also saw a niche it could exploit in the TV contracts. Back in the 60’s there were no NFL doubleheaders on TV. The games were televised at 1 o’clock only. The AFL would play their games at 4pm so they weren’t in competition with the NFL. There was already an audience sitting watching football after the 1 o’clock games so the AFL took advantage of those football crazy fans who wanted to watch another game. This also made it easier for their western teams to have fans come to a game that was not started in the morning during church services. The Titans would also play Saturday night games to avoid the Giants telecasts. This gave the Titans their own time slot for their fans.

Titans need a coach

The newly minted Titans needed to put together a front office and hire a coach. The front office was basically just Harry and a few other players at different times and the GM. The Titans first GM would be Steve Sebo, the former Penn football coach. Sabo really wasn’t a great football expert. His scouting acumen was acquired by reading those 25 cent scouting magazines you could find at the newspaper store (yeah they had those years ago). He was more of a cheerleader for Harry than a knowledgeable GM.

When the Titans announced their new head coach they invited the press to their office in Harry’s apartment on Park Avenue. The few reporters that came to the apartment were surprised to see a three piece band (guitar, sax & bass) all dressed up in cowboy attire and sitting against the living room wall. The Titans first coach was Sammy Baugh, the former QB from the team in Washington DC. Baugh at that time was definitely in the top 10 of players in NFL history, still holding passing records as well as punting records.

Baugh was from Texas but he was no country bumpkin. He had lived on the east coast for decades by this time. Wismer had Baugh dressed up with a cowboy hat and a bandana when he introduced him to the press. The door opened, Sammy came walking through, the band played the song “The eyes of Texas” and Wismer said “Gentlemen, I want to introduce the new coach of the Titans, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh.” When Baugh walked out he dropped his head in utter dismay and embarrassment. Newsday’s Stan Isaacs wrote “He looked as if he had just parked his horse on Park Avenue.”

The Titans’ office in Harry’s apartment on Park Avenue also became the team’s first ticket office. Once the season began Harry would have tickets all over his apartment with people coming up to buy them.

The press for the AFL consisted of a few reporters from various newspapers like the Herald Tribune. AFL beat reporters were considered a step or two below the NFL beat reporters, especially the Giants reporters. The Giants wanted good press coverage and knew how to get it. No one made a lot of money back in 1960 but the Giants would have a press conference every Tuesday and give out free steak dinners to the writers to keep them happy. The most seasoned writers attended the Giants press conferences. They made sure of that. They laughed at the AFL writers who attended the AFL pressers. No surprise then that the Giants always got great press coverage.

Next up

The first AFL Draft, like no draft you have ever seen

Finding a stadium

Money troubles for Harry and players

New owner on the horizon