As the National Football League (NFL) season heats up this fall, throngs are making their weekly  pilgrimage to space-age football stadiums and to the altars of high-def televisions to watch what has clearly become The Greatest Show on Earth. Most fans don’t know it, but they have alumnus David A. (Sonny) Werblin to thank for the spectacle  of the NFL. 

Werblin RC’31, who died in 1991, was an entertainment visionary who made his mark for 30 years working for the Music Corporation of America (MCA), where he represented dozens of celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Jack Benny and where he produced hits like The Ed Sullivan Show and Wagon Train. Werblin, who joined the company as an office boy after pursuing a tip from Jack Carney, a Rutgers friend and the older brother of Art Carney, built MCA’s television division into an entertainment juggernaut, second to none.

While at MCA, Werblin oversaw the first television contract between the American Football League (AFL) and NBC, and he grew interested in the fledgling league, leading Werblin and a group of investors to buy the New York Titans, one of the AFL teams, in 1963 for $1 million. Two years later, Werblin began the production of one of his biggest hits, signing quarterback Joe Namath to play for his struggling team, which had been renamed the New York Jets (because of the proximity of LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, to Shea Stadium, where the Jets played their home games). The AFL was a source of ridicule, a slapstick act, to many observers, that labored in the deep shadow of the hallowed National Football League. Recognizing a star when he saw one, Werblin persuaded Namath, fresh out of the University of Alabama, to bypass the established NFL and sign a contract for the unheard-of sum of $427,000. Werblin, foreseeing that pro sports could become a huge entertainment business because of television, knew that landing Namath was a small price to pay. As he once  put it: “A million-dollar set is worthless if you put a $2,000 actor in the main role.”

Alumnus David A. (Sonny) Werblin, center, flanked by New York Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank (left) and Joe Namath


Alumnus David A. (Sonny) Werblin, center, flanked by New York Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank (left) and Joe Namath on the day that the quarterback signed his historic contract in 1965. The Sonny Werblin Recreation Center, on the Busch Campus at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, is named after Werblin, who died in 1991.

Associated Press

The flamboyant Namath, whose notoriety for enjoying the nightlife of New York City grew alongside his reputation for throwing skyscraping passes at Shea Stadium, was given the moniker Broadway Joe, and it suited him fine. “When Joe Namath walks into a room, you know he’s there; it’s like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris,” Werblin told Robert H. Boyle for a 1965 Sports Illustrated story. “When any other high-priced rookie walks in, he’s just a nice-looking young man.”

Within three years, Namath, the conductor of the Jets’ wide-open, pass-first offense now favored in today’s NFL, had his team in the Super Bowl. They faced the venerated Baltimore Colts, who were 18-point favorites to crush the brash Jets and their quarterback who wore pretty white football shoes. At the Miami Touchdown Club three days before the game, Namath nonchalantly guaranteed that his team would win Super Bowl III.

The blasphemous remark spread like wildfire through the sports world; now, no one could resist watching the television broadcast  of the game on January 12, 1969. Somewhere, Sonny Werblin undoubtedly had a big smile on his face. The Jets won easily, 16–7, in what remains one of the biggest upsets in pro sports. Within a year, the two leagues, recognizing that a talent gap no longer existed and wishing to avoid expensive bidding wars for college athletes who had been drafted by both leagues, merged to form today’s NFL. And a nation’s interest in the colorful Joe Namath and a new entertaining brand of  professional football had been piqued. As the famous broadcaster Howard Cosell put it: “Werblin  single-handedly changed the face of sports in America.”

By the time Namath led the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III, however, Werblin, who had played roles in other successful pro teams and sports arenas in New York, was no longer an owner of the team, bought out by his fellow owners who didn’t appreciate all the attention heaped on the impresario in their midst. “He knew the value of the fan and the star system,” Namath told the New York Times following Werblin’s death. “Over the years, he adopted me. He made sure I was getting along well. He told me to get to know New York, that it was the greatest city.”