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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: America’s New Pastime

The Founding of America’s New Pastime

by Tom Morrow

With the annual Super Bowl Sunday just around the corner, you might be interested in how professional football grew to the giant business it is today.

Baseball is no longer the nation’s “pastime.” Today, it’s the National Football League. The NFL averages a larger per-game viewership, both in attendance as well as broadcasts and telecasts, than any other sporting event in North America.

On Feb. 1, this year’s ultimate playoff, known as the “Super Bowl,” will determine the champion of the league.

Professional football had its birth in the state of Ohio when a meeting in a new car showroom was held on Aug. 20, 1920, by representatives of the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles in Canton, Ohio, resulting in the formation of the “American Professional Football Conference.” The primary aim was to raise the standard of professional football, eliminating bidding for players between clubs and to organize schedules.

The fledgling league hired legendary football great Jim Thorpe as the first president. Historically speaking, only two of those original 14 teams remain: the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears) and the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals).

In 1922, the name was changed to the National Football League. Fan interest in a championship game led the NFL to split into two divisions with a championship game to be played between the divisions. In the 1933 season, African Americans were prohibited from playing in the league. That ban was rescinded in 1947, because of public pressure and the lifting of a similar ban in Major League Baseball.

Up until the 1960s, several smaller leagues attempted to form, but the NFL remained dominant and faced little competition. Rival leagues included three attempts at an, “American Football League,” the “World Football League, and the “All-America Football Conference,” none of which lasted for more than four seasons, although several of the teams joined the NFL after their parent league disbanded.

A fourth attempt at an “American Football League,” began in 1960. The upstart AFL challenged the established NFL, gaining lucrative television contracts and a bidding war for free agents and draft picks. In 1966, the two leagues finally announced a merger to take full effect in 1970.

In 1966, the leagues began holding a common draft and championship game, the Super Bowl. The four championship games before the merger saw the NFL winning the first two and the AFL won Super Bowl III and Super Bowl IV. After the league merged, two conferences were formed: the NFC and the AFC.

In 1967, the NFL expanded to 16 teams. Instead of just evening out the conferences by adding the expansion New Orleans Saints, the NFL realigned the conferences and split each into two four-team divisions. The four conference champions would meet for a two-round playoff.

Today, much of the NFL’s growth is attributed to the late Pete Rozelle, who led the league from 1960 to 1989. Overall annual attendance increased from 3 million at the beginning of Rozelle’s tenure as commissioner to 17 million by his retirement. Success can be measured in the numbers. On Feb. 1, nearly a billion TV viewers around the world are expected to be watching the Super Bowl. A sell-out crowd will watch the game in person, paying several hundred dollars for a ticket.

Aside from the games, in 1983, Rozelle established NFL Properties, earning the league billions of dollars annually in shirts, caps, etc., sales. The NFL is an enormously wealthy business for its owners, coaches, and players.


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