War had been declared.
Despite the National Football League's efforts to squash the adolescent American Football League, the AFL continued growing like the little brother that learned to fight back. Enough of a threat, a sort of gentleman's agreement was established during the mid-60s that prevented either league from poaching players under contract from the other.
Eventually the NFL couldn't resist the idea of tampering, despite a verbal agreement, when the New York Giants signed placekicker Pete Gogolak, who was already under contract with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. Soon Al Davis became the AFL's Commissioner and began poaching players en mass. Author Ken Rappoport wrote in a book titled "The Little League Could: How the AFL changed the NFL forever."
The AFL had put together a war chest for just such an occasion, and Davis made sure they targeted the quarterbacks. Los Angeles Rams QB Roman Gabriel signed a contract that would begin in 1967 and immediately received a $100,000 bonus. Fran Tarkenton and Sonny Jurgensen, future Hall of Famers, were approached. So were solid NFL passers such as John Brodie and Milt Plum.
By this point, leaders on both sides -- Davis withstanding, perhaps -- were sensing the senselessness of it all. The AFL was not about to fold. None of its franchises, not even the financially strapped ones in Boston or Denver, was about to disappear. In fact, the league was about to grow, with an expansion team in Miami beginning play in 1966.
The NFL reached out to the AFL and the two leagues formed a merger agreement on June 8, 1966. Part of the agreement was expanding the league from a combined 24 to 26 in 1969 and 28 in 1970, when the two leagues would finally be absorbed under the NFL banner with the AFL logo retiring.
The AFL needed two teams and former Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown began a push to give Cincinnati one of those franchises. By November of 1966, Commissioner Pete Rozelle indicated that Cincinnati had the inside track to win a franchise because voters in Seattle (the major competitor against Cincinnati) turned down a vote for a stadium two months prior.
Ohio Governor James Rhodes presented a proposal on Cincinnati's behalf on May 23, 1967, but a vote, requiring approval from seven of the nine owners in the AFL, was delayed with "terms of ownership and the stadium" being factors. By this time Cincinnati had already approved construction for a new stadium that would later become Riverfront Stadium, a multi-purpose "cookie-cutter" facility that would cost less than $50 million.
Despite that, most sources label May 23, 1967 as the date that the Cincinnati Bengals were born. However, according to an Associated Press report in a newspaper dated May 24, 1967:
Pro football commissioner Pete Rozelle said that no action would be taken Tuesday on the application of Cincinnati for membership in the American Football League. Rozelle made the announcement at a joint press conference of the AFL and National Football League which held separate, day-long meetings at a mid-town hotel.
Check for yourself. May 23, 1967 was a Tuesday. The vote was supposed to happen on Tuesday, but was eventually announced the following day. From the Associated Press report in a newspaper dated May 25, 1967:
Cincinnati was named Wednesday as the 10th member of the American Football League, to begin play in 1968.
William N. Wallace with the New York Times wrote on May 25, 1967:
"Cincinnati, a city of 1.3-million population that has had a professional baseball team since 1869, gained a pro football team yesterday. The American Football League granted a franchise its 10th to Cincinnati, with the approval of the National Football League..."
The UPI wrote on May 24, 1967:
Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the joint pro football leagues, today announced Cincinnati would receive a franchise in the American Football League and begin play in 1968.
Who would own the team was an entirely different matter.
By 1967 there were five different ownership groups seeking to become owners, but only two groups with a realistic chance to become the Bengals eventual owners. One was headed by Paul Brown, joined by son Mike, John Sawyer, son of former Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer, Wayne Brown, a grocery store magnate and William C. Nackett, a former Ohio State football player. John Wiether, who was a former guard for the Detroit Lions and former coach for the University of Cincinnati basketball team, was Brown's only major threat.
After months of speculation the league awarded Paul Brown the Cincinnati in the summer of 1967. Brown had been out of football since 1963 after being fired from the Cleveland Browns.
A franchise turned into an embodiment of vengeance for Brown. And as they say, the rest is history.
UPDATE: We confirmed through the Bengals that Cincinnati was awarded a franchise on May 24, 1967.
UPDATE II: There is a belief that the decision was made during the night of May 23rd, 1967 and an announcement was officially made on May 24.