The history of American sports mergers suggests we should have seen this coming
Shocked, speechless, dumbfounded. Pick a synonym, any synonym. That’s how the golf world — hell, even Adam Schefter — felt when they first heard news that the PGA Tour and LIV Golf would be joining forces on Tuesday morning. For nearly a year and a half, the two sides have waged a war of pettiness and propaganda rarely seen outside of American politics. They have taken cheap shots and low blows. They have grandstanded and lectured. They have made big threats and bigger promises and, with one little scribble on a massive bottom line, they are partners, again, for better or worse. If the history of American sports has taught us anything, however, it’s that the only surprise is that this was a surprise at all.
NL + AL = MLB
On April 22nd, 1876, the Boston Red Caps defeated the Philadelphia Athletics 6-5 in the first-ever National League baseball game, widely regarded as the birth of professional baseball in America. For the next 30 years, the NL reigned as the premier baseball force in the country, but it wasn’t without challengers. In 1892, the NL merged with the upstart American Association, known by some as the “beer and whiskey league” because they would sell alcohol at games. The merger formed a new 12-team NL league that lasted until 1899, when the NL dropped four franchises. Those teams banded together to form the American League and began encroaching on the NL’s East Coast territory, picking up star players and new fans along the way. Stop us if this sounds familiar to you. This period became known as the “baseball war” until 1902, when the NL and AL united under a single National Commission, cementing their new truce with an inter-league championship game called the “World Series.”
NFL + AFL = NFL
Flash forward to 1959, when a man by the name of Lamar Hunt approached the NFL about founding a second franchise in Dallas. The NFL wasn’t interested in expansion, so Hunt did the only logical thing the son of a Texas oil magnate (yep, there’s oil money involved) would do:
He founded his own rival league, the American Football League.
In a year’s time, the AFL debuted with eight franchises, including the Boston Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills. By 1961 the AFL expanded to 10 teams with the addition of the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals. The league grew quickly by targeting previously football-less markets and mining small universities and black colleges, which the NFL had previously overlooked, for talent. The AFL introduced innovations such as the two-point conversion, the 14-game regular-season and players names on the backs of their jerseys, but their primary advantage was simple. The AFL owners were simply richer than their NFL counterparts.
Ringing any bells, golf fans?
By 1966 the competition had grown so fierce that the NFL called for peace talks, eventually culminating in the rival leagues’ convergence and the subsequent formation of the NFL in June of 1966. The first-ever AFL-NFL World Championship Game — soon to be known as the Super Bowl — was penciled in for the following January.
Focus On Sport
NBA + ABA = NBA
Basketball wasn’t far behind. About the same time the first Super Bowl was held, the American Basketball Association, commonly known as the ABA, was launched as a direct competitor to the NBA. Like “golf but louder,” the ABA was billed as the splashier alternative to its established competition, instituting new wrinkles like the three-point arc and slam-dunk contest while employing electrifying players such as Julius Erving, George Gervin and Connie Hawkins. After watching the AFL-NFL merger, the ABA was formed with the express intent of one day merging with the NBA and while the two leagues didn’t officially join until 1976 due to an ongoing antitrust lawsuit, talks between the two sides had been progressing since 1970 and it was widely regarded as a matter of if not when.
NHL + WHA = NHL
Three years later, hockey became the final of America’s “Core Four” sports to undergo its painful, but ultimately successful, collision when the NHL and WHA finally joined forces after a nearly decade-long dispute. Angered by WHA’s repeated scavenging of NHL talent, several hardline NHL owners repeatedly rebuffed the truce. In 1979, the merger vote initially failed, but circumstances, including a Canadian boycott of Molson products, owners of the dynastic Montreal Canadiens, led to a revote. Cooler heads prevailed in the second vote and the two leagues officially became one.
The NHL was still incensed by the behavior of its little brother, however. Owners insisted that new franchises be treated as “expansion teams” instead of pre-existing entities (even if they had the same names and logos—good news Fireballs fans!) and even voted to allow NHL franchises to re-acquire the player rights to players on WHA franchises who had been poached from them over the course of the 1970s. 40 years later, only the people who update Wikipedia remember this bad blood.
So what does this legacy of backstabbing, litigation and subterfuge tell us about the biggest Tuesday in professional golf perhaps ever? Well, that it was inevitable. That those who thought LIV Golf was just a punchline were just as deluded as those who thought it could spread its wings and soar. That much like a fight on the schoolyard, fisticuffs often breeds begrudging friendship. It’s going to be awkward for a while. Plenty of things have been said that can’t be unsaid, no matter how tall the stack of NDAs climbs. But one day this will be a history lesson for some future sports league and its rabid (and maybe a little bit myopic) fanbase. Words are nice, but money always talks.