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
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the Green Bay Packers, had moved to or been replaced by big cities.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
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
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
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.
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.