History of the National Football League


The National Football League (NFL) is the largest professional American football league, consisting of thirty-two teams from major American cities and regions. The league was formed in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, which adopted the name "National Football League" in 1922. The NFL is one of the major professional sports leagues of North America.

Prior to the 1960s, the most popular version of American football was played collegiately. The NFL's greatest spurt in popularity came in the 1960s and 1970s, after the 1958 NFL Championship Game (which went into overtime) and with the merger of the rival American Football League (1960-1969) which introduced major on- and off-the-field innovations that were eventually adopted by the NFL.


Professional football dates at least to 1892, when an athletic club in Pittsburgh paid William "Pudge" Heffelfinger $500 to take part in a game. Over the next few decades, while most attention was paid to football at elite colleges on the East Coast, the professional game spread widely in the Midwest.

The American Professional Football Association was founded in 1920 at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe was elected president. The group of 11 teams, all but one in the Midwest, was originally less a league than an agreement not to rob other teams' players. In the early years, APFA members continued to play non-APFA teams.
In 1921, the APFA began releasing official standings, and the following year, the group changed its name to the National Football League. However, the NFL was hardly a major league in the 20s. Teams entered and left the league frequently. Franchises included such colorful representatives as the Oorang Indians, an all-Native American outfit that also put on a performing dog show.

Yet as former college stars like Red Grange and Benny Friedman began to test the professional waters, the pro game slowly began to increase in popularity. By 1934 all of the small-town teams, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers, had moved to or been replaced by big cities. One factor in the league's rising popularity was the institution of an annual championship game in 1933.

By the end of World War II, pro football began to rival the college game for fans' attention. The spread of the T formation led to a faster-paced, higher-scoring game that attracted record numbers of fans. In 1945, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, becoming the first big-league sports franchise on the West Coast. In 1950, the NFL accepted three teams from the defunct All-America Football Conference, expanding to 13 clubs.

In the 1950s, pro football finally earned its place as a major sport. The NFL embraced television, giving Americans nationwide a chance to follow stars like Bobby Layne, Paul Hornung and Johnny Unitas. The 1958 NFL championship in New York -- considered by many to be the most-important game in the rise of the NFL -- drew record TV viewership and made national celebrities out of Unitas and his Baltimore Colts teammates.

The rise of pro football was so fast that by the mid-60s, it had surpassed baseball as Americans' favorite spectator sport in some surveys. As more people wanted to cash in on this surge of popularity than the NFL could accommodate, a rival league, the American Football League, was founded in 1960. The ensuing costly war for players between the NFL and AFL almost derailed the sport's ascent. In 1966, the leagues agreed to merge as of the 1970 season. The 10 AFL teams joined three existing NFL teams to form the NFL's American Football Conference. The remaining 13 NFL teams became the National Football Conference. Another result of the merger was the creation of the Super Bowl to determine the "world champion" of pro football.

In the 1970s and 80s, the NFL solidified its dominance as America's top spectator sport and its important role in American culture. The Super Bowl became an unofficial national holiday and the top-rated TV program most years. Monday Night Football, which first aired in 1970 brought in high ratings by mixing sports and entertainment. Rules changes in the late 70s ensured a fast-paced game with lots of passing to attract the casual fan.

The founding of the United States Football League in the early 80s was the biggest challenge to the NFL in the post-merger era. The USFL was a well-financed competitor with big-name players and a national television contract. However, the USFL failed to make money and folded after three years.

In recent years, the NFL has expanded into new markets and ventures. In 1993, the league formed the World League of American Football, (now NFL Europe), a developmental league now with teams in Germany and the Netherlands. The league played a regular-season NFL game in Mexico City in 2005 and intends to play more such games in other countries. In 2003, The NFL lauched its own cable-television channel, the NFL Network.

In recent decades, the NFL regular season had traditionally started on Labor Day Weekend and lasted through Christmas week. However, declining television ratings on Labor Day have pushed the start of the regular season ahead one week. This is where scheduling currently stands, with the first game of the season being played on the Thursday after Labor Day (the remaining Week 1 games are played three to four days later).


At the end of each season, the winners of the playoffs in the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference meet in the NFL championship, the Super Bowl. This game is held at a pre-selected site which is usually a city that hosts an NFL team. One week later, selected all-star players from both the AFC and NFC meet in the Pro Bowl, currently held in Hawaii.