There are few collectibles that have a more direct connection to sports than a game program. Full of photos, stories, information and those great old advertisements, game programs have been a staple of the sporting experience for more than 100 years. Programs are ubiquitous in sports today, and can be found at contests ranging in importance from the annual Super Bowl to weekly high school games, and nearly everywhere in between.
Game programs from the old American Football League are an extremely popular segment among vintage football collectors. These programs typically make interesting display pieces, and when browsed through, offer interesting information about the players, coaches, teams and league that in the 1960s, changed professional football forever.
When the subject of AFL game programs comes up for discussion, collectors typically recall small programs, with colorful and cartoonish covers. These books certainly represent a segment of AFL programs, but were not for the league’s duration. In fact, there were three general cover styles that were used during the AFL’s 10 years, and with some exception, these styles were employed by all teams throughout the league.
- 1960-1964 – The programs issued during the AFL’s first four seasons are general-speaking the most popular and valuable. These books often feature illustrated covers by artists such as Karl Hubenthal, Dick Gibson and Phil Bissell. The themes of the covers are typically caricatures of the teams competing, usually with the home team in some dominant position over the visitor. An example might be a large bison (Buffalo Bills) chasing a man up an oil derrick (Oilers). These programs vary in price depending on year and importance of the game, but regular-season games from 1960 can usually be found in the $125-$250 range, with prices decreasing slightly each year.
- 1965-1967 – This second phase of AFL game programs substituted photography for cartoons as the main imagery for the program covers. While the style and size of the text and borders changed over this three-year period, a large photograph, color or black & white, accounted for roughly ¾ of the front cover. Some might see the change as an aesthetic improvement, or as offering a new opportunity to autograph collectors, but the programs from his period are much less expensive than those produced from 1960-1964. A contributing factor could be that that the AFL was on more solid ground at this stage, and thus could afford the risk of producing more programs than were printed in the early years. Whatever the underlying factor, these programs can usually be found in the $40-$60 range in nice condition.
- 1968-1969 – Much of the creativity left the program covers beginning in 1968. The league began to standardize programs, and a general formula was used for covers league-wide. A large image of the visiting team’s helmet decorated the front cover, with date, teams and a bit more information placed in a banner at the top. The programs from 1969 were styled with illustrated players on the cover, but again with a somewhat bland and standardized theme. Programs from 1968 and 1969 generally cost less than $20, and can sometimes be found for around $5.
One of the neat things about AFL programs is that while most regular-season programs can be found rather easily, there are many preseason games that provide a much greater challenge to obtain. In an effort to expose the masses to the new league, AFL teams often played preseason games in non-league cities. Honolulu, Fayetteville, La Mesa, Mobile, New Haven, Ft. Worth and Midland are just a handful of the non-traditional cities in which preseason games were held. These game programs are typically much more difficult to find, and prices reflect their rarity.
Postseason programs are highly-sought as well. AFL championship programs usually range from about $1,800 (1960) to $200 (1969). It is my experience that the program from the 1962 AFL championship is the rarest, while that from 1960 is the most expensive. The first four super bowl programs were also produced in this era, and while not exceptionally rare, command a decent price due to historic importance. A nice SBI program can be found around $400 while SBIV is seen closer to $125.
As with trading cards, programs can be collected in countless ways. Their rich content and colorful artwork make them fantastic acquisitions whether for research or display. Factor in the addition of autographs, and a simple program can become a multi-year collecting project. Whether you collect by team, season, game, or simply for aesthetics, there is immeasurable enjoyment in a nice group of game programs.
You can see some AFL programs on eBay by clicking here.