The Bengals were founded in 1966 as a member of the American Football League (AFL) by former Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown, and began play in the 1968 season. Brown was the Bengals' head coach from their inception to 1975. After being dismissed as the Browns' head coach by Art Modell (who had purchased a majority interest in the team in 1961) in January 1963, Brown had shown interest in establishing another NFL franchise in Ohio and looked at both Cincinnati and Columbus. He ultimately chose the former when a deal between the city, Hamilton County, and Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds (who were seeking a replacement for the obsolete Crosley Field) was struck that resulted in an agreement to build a multipurpose stadium which could host both baseball and football games.
Due to the impending merger of the AFL and the NFL, which was scheduled to take full effect in the 1970 season, Brown agreed to join the AFL as its tenth and final franchise. The Bengals, like the other former AFL teams, were assigned to the AFC following the merger. Cincinnati was also selected because, like their neighbors the Reds, they could draw from several large neighboring cities (Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; Columbus, Dayton, and Springfield, Ohio) that are all no more than 110 miles (180 km) away from downtown Cincinnati, along with Indianapolis, until the Baltimore Colts relocated there prior to the 1984 NFL season.
The Bengals won the AFC championship in 1981 and 1988, but lost Super Bowls XVI and XXIII to the San Francisco 49ers. After Paul Brown's death in 1991, controlling interest in the team was inherited by his son, Mike Brown. In 2011, Brown purchased shares of the team owned by the estate of co-founder Austin Knowlton and is now the majority owner of the Bengals franchise.
The 1990s and the 2000s were a period of great struggle. Following the 1990 season, the team went 14 years without posting a winning record, nor qualifying to play in the NFL playoffs. The Bengals had several head coaches and several of their top draft picks did not pan out. Mike Brown, the team's de facto general manager, was rated as among the worst team owners in American professional sports. The team's fortunes improved in the mid-2000s, which saw them become more consistent postseason contenders, but they have continued to struggle past the regular season and have not won a playoff game since 1990, which is the longest active drought in the NFL.
The Bengals are one of 12 NFL teams to not have won a Super Bowl and one of five to have not won a championship, pre or post-Super Bowl era. They are also the only AFL franchise to have not won a championship in the AFL or NFL.