It may be baseball that has the nickname of "America's pastime," but in terms of ratings football has it beat. The defining professional sports league for 21st century America has been the NFL.
It was not always like that. The National Football League took decades to rise to prominence, facing competition and controversies both inside and out of the league. Great players, great coaches and great marketing turned it into both a sports and media juggernaut - one that still sees controversy to this day.
Anyone who has watched the expensive Super Bowl halftime performances knows what a massive moneymaker football is today. But what of its humble beginnings? This is the history of the NFL.
NFL History Timeline
The NFL as we know it has really only been around since the 1960s. But professional football dates back far longer than that.
1800s-1900s: Who Founded the NFL?
The first noted professional football event took place in 1892. American football as a sport had existed before that, but a game between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in Pennsylvania in 1892 was the first instance of a player getting paid to play. In this case, the player was William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, a Yale alumnus who played for the AAA.
In the years following the first professional player, there were several attempts to get an official professional football league off the ground. In 1902 there was even one called the National Football League, ironically with teams of Philadelphia baseball players. But there wasn't much money or fanfare, and the league was soon gone.
Other local leagues popped up with varying degrees of success. One was the Ohio League, known for having world-class athlete Jim Thorpe on the Canton Bulldogs. Football was rising in popularity, but the lack of organization was stifling it from growing further. Sensing this, owners of several Ohio League teams like Bulldogs and the Akron Pros met for an organizational meeting that led to the decision to start a new league.
The owners held a second meeting, this time bringing in additional teams from New York, Indiana and Illinois. These owners all decided on a name: the American Professional Football Association. They named Jim Thorpe the President. These were the founders of the league that would become the NFL.
1920s: American Professional Football Association
The teams from the meetings that would be some of the first AFPA teams were:
- Akron Pros
- Canton Bulldogs
- Cleveland Indians
- Dayton Triangles
- Decatur Staleys
- Hammond Pros
- Muncie Flyers
- Racine Cardinals
- Rochester Jeffersons
- Rock Island Independents
Prior to the start of the American Professional Football Association's first season, four other teams joined the league:
- Buffalo All-Americans
- Chicago Tigers
- Columbus Panhandles
- Detroit Heralds
Despite 14 teams in the league, the AFPA did not keep standings for the season. There were no playoffs. At the end of the season, the association awarded the championship to the Akron Pros, who went undefeated and had eight wins - despite the Buffalo All-Americans having nine and the Decatur Staleys having 10.
This lack of organization became a running theme, and the lack of a playoff system made the championship all the more controversial. In 1921, a game that was meant to be merely an exhibition game turned into a tiebreaker between Buffalo and the now-Chicago Staleys that led to Chicago being named the league champions. An established playoff system was still a decade away.
Throughout the 20s, more teams were added to the AFPA, some of whom ended up becoming teams that still exist to this day. The Green Bay Packers joined in 1921, and the New York Giants in 1925. These teams, along with the Cardinals (now in Arizona) and the Staleys (now the Chicago Bears), are still NFL teams.
It was in 1922 that the AFPA rebranded and became the National Football League. It has not changed since.
The league continued to expand, and teams like the Canton Bulldogs, the Frankford Yellow Jackets and the Providence Steam Roller all won championships. But the NFL wasn't gaining fans as rapidly as it wanted, in no small part due to how localized the league was to the northeast and Midwest.
1930s-40s: The First Playoffs and New Teams
1932 changed the NFL and the way championships were awarded. At the time, the champion would be the team with the highest winning percentage, but the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans finished the season tied for first. With no additional tiebreakers available, the league reversed a long-time rule against playoff games and held the first NFL Championship Game. The Bears won, 9-0.
With a playoff game leading to a successful ending to the season, the league overhauled its system in 1933, separating itself from both its past and college football. Now the teams in the league were divided into divisions, the Eastern Division and Western Division (though the league was still so localized that the westernmost teams were in the Midwest). This now-familiar format was a success, and the division winners (New York Giants and Chicago Bears) met in the Championship Game, which the Bears won 23-21.
This new structure was a massive success, and with playoff runs to follow, fans caught on. Teams began to change as well. Some teams from the 20s and 30s fell off and disappeared from the NFL entirely, while others popped up in their wake - also on the East Coast and in the Midwest - and found themselves competing. The teams in NFL Championship Games in the 30s and 40s may look familiar. Not just the Bears and Giants, but the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins too.
A burgeoning sport, the NFL finally moved out west in 1946 when Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves threatened to leave football entirely if the league wouldn't let him relocate the team to Los Angeles. He relented, and by 1949 the Los Angeles Rams were in a Championship Game. The sport was expanding nationally.
1940s-50s: Integration in the NFL
Segregation in the NFL isn't discussed as much as segregation in baseball. But the mid-1930s into the 40s saw no black players in the league, a time of complete segregation in the NFL.
The first team to make strides toward ending segregation was the now-Los Angeles Rams, albeit by force: Plessy v. Ferguson meant the L.A. Coliseum couldn't lease their stadium to a team that was completely segregated. Thus, in 1946 they signed former UCLA star Kenny Washington in March, and Woody Strode in May.
Other NFL teams were slow to integrate their rosters. On the other hand, most of the teams in the All-America Football Conference had managed to integrate their teams in the late 40s. The AAFC later shut down and folded 3 teams into the NFL: the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers.
Most teams had begun integrating slowly by the early 50s. The exception, to no one's surprise, was the Washington Redskins. Washington owner George Marshall, a man literally known for being racist more than anything else, steadfastly refused to sign or draft black players. This extended all the way until 1962, when Stewart Udall - the secretary of the interior for most of the 1960s - threatened to revoke the team's lease on the stadium, effectively evicting them. Marshall was forced to relent.
The 50s were a great time for the league. Integration, expansion and impressive championship runs from teams like the Lions and Browns helped increase popularity at a time when baseball fans were growing bored of the constant Yankees World Series victories. Football was becoming the popular new sport.
1960s: The AFL, the First Super Bowl and the Merger
The NFL also started facing competition from other leagues. In the 50s, after a failed attempt to buy an NFL team and bring them to Dallas, oil heir Lamar Hunt formulated plans to create a rival football league. The first official meeting between Hunt and other owners took place in August 1959, and by November the American Football League (AFL) had its first draft.
One owner left before the league could start as the NFL approved their team in Minnesota, but in 1960 the league had a television contract and 8 teams:
- Boston Patriots
- Buffalo Bills
- Dallas Texans
- Denver Broncos
- Houston Oilers
- Los Angeles Chargers
- New York Titans
- Oakland Raiders
In the first few years, the AFL had middling success and didn't pose much of a threat to the NFL. But they did well enough to, in 1964, sign a new and better TV contract with NBC. This lucrative deal meant more money for the league, and suddenly teams had the funds to compete with the NFL for players. The most noteworthy of these players was Joe Namath, who was drafted by the Cardinals in the NFL and the New York Jets (formerly the titans) in the AFL and chose to sign with the Jets.
The AFL became more popular, and the leagues essentially found themselves in bidding wars, trying to outbid the other for draft picks and even trying to poach players from opposing leagues. Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Schramm approached Lamar Hunt about a potential merger.
A series of secret meetings hammered out the details of the merger, and in June of 1966, the AFL-NFL merger was officially announced. The combined leagues had 24 teams (including newly formed NFL expansion teams Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins) and per the merger would expand to 26 teams by 1968 (which ended up being the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals) and 28 teams by 1970 or "soon thereafter" (these teams ended up being the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Another part of the agreement was that while the AFL and NFL would play separate regular season schedules up to 1969, at the end of the season the league champions would play an "AFL-NFL World Championship Game." This was the first iteration of the Super Bowl. The NFL had the easy upper hand in the first two, as the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders, respectively.
In Super Bowl III, however, the AFL established itself as a league that could compete with the best. Led by the aforementioned Joe Namath, the New York Jets pulled off a huge upset against the Baltimore Colts, who had been favored by a whopping 18 points.
1970s: Rise in Popularity and the First Super Bowl Era Dynasties
The merger had now allowed for the NFL and AFL to be combined into one NFL. The Colts, Browns and Steelers of the NFL agreed to, with the 10 existing AFL teams, become the American Football Conference (AFC), while the remaining NFL teams were the National Football Conference (NFC).
It's the 1970s where the NFL began to take shape into what it is today. Seattle and Tampa Bay were added as teams. The Boston Patriots became the New England Patriots. And the Super Bowl became a much bigger deal, thanks to several teams becoming dominating powerhouses, terrorizing the league and making the Super Bowl on multiple occasions.
From 1970-79, the Dallas Cowboys went to five Super Bowls, winning two. The Pittsburgh Steelers went to and won three Super Bowls (and a fourth in January of 1980). The Minnesota Vikings went to four Super Bowls - though they lost all four.
The Miami Dolphins also went to three straight Super Bowls and won two of them in the 1970s. Not as many as the previously mentioned team, but the Dolphins also did something none of those teams accomplished: the perfect season. A 14-0 regular season in 1972, two playoff wins to clinch the AFC and a Super Bowl win over Washington meant they were 17-0 with a championship. Only one team since has had an undefeated regular season; they're still the only undefeated championship team.
1980s-90s: USFL Competition, Free Agency and the Franchise Tag
The NFL was now an institution, and by the 80s the Super Bowl was regularly getting over 80 million television viewers. As such, it was time for some more millionaires to try and compete with it.
The United States Football League (USFL) lasted for three seasons, and perhaps could have lasted longer if not for its hubris. Beginning in 1983, the USFL played their games in the spring instead of the fall, and rosters boasted players such as future NFLers and Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young.
But the owners, led by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, made the decision to move their games to the fall in an attempt to directly compete with the NFL. A big part of this was filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that alleged that the NFL had established a monopoly that pressured major television networks into not broadcasting fall USFL games.
The jury, after deliberation, found that the NFL did have a monopoly, but did not find it to be at fault for the USFL's problem. As such, the USFL technically won its case but was awarded just one dollar of the $1.7 billion it sought. The league folded soon after.
The NFL, meanwhile, continued to thrive. The dynasties of the 70s were replaced by that of the San Francisco 49ers. The Chicago Bears and New York Giants, two of the oldest NFL franchises, used legendary defenses to get their first Super Bowl championships.
Another team of the 80s and 90s that thrived was the Denver Broncos, thanks to their star quarterback John Elway. Elway's Broncos went to five Super Bowls, winning the last two. He was also an important part of what we know as modern free agency in football. According to Sports Illustrated, when negotiations were going on to establish what free agency would look like, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's fear of losing his quarterback led to what is now known as the "franchise tag," where a team was permitted to choose one player per free agency season that they could "tag" and give a hefty one-year contract to - with the hopes of a long-term deal beyond that year getting finalized.
2000s: The Patriots Dynasty and the Goodell Era
The 2000s saw a dynasty that still exists in the NFL nearly two decades after their first Super Bowl victory - the New England Patriots.
The Patriots had been to just two Super Bowls prior to the 21st century, losing to the Bears in the 80s and the Packers in the 90s. Bill Belichick's Patriots weren't expected to dominate at all, but an injury to starting QB Drew Bledsoe in 2001 led to second-year quarterback Tom Brady taking over. A solid year for the young Brady and a good defense led them to a massive upset over the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl that season; Brady was named MVP of that Super Bowl.
Two years later, they won again. The year after that, they won again. Suddenly the Patriots were an undeniable dynasty, with three Super Bowl championships in four years. With Brady at the helm, Belichick created elite teams and developed a reputation as an all-time great coach. This culminated in the first ever undefeated 16-game season, which the Patriots achieved in 2007 thanks to a record-breaking year from Brady. But an upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl 42 left them without a title to show for their effort.
Since 2001, the Patriots have been in eight Super Bowls, winning five.
The other big change for the NFL in the 2000s was at the commissioner's office. In the middle of the decade, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced his retirement. In August of 2006, the NFL owners voted to make Roger Goodell, a longtime NFL employee, the new commissioner.
Goodell inherited a cultural and media juggernaut. In Tagliabue's tenure, the NFL grew exponentially, and the one attempt at a new football league during that time, the XFL, was roundly mocked and lasted just one season. He was now commissioner of arguably the biggest professional sports league in America.
Since Goodell took over, the NFL has continued to thrive, albeit with declining ratings in line with the decline of all television ratings. But his NFL has also been riddled with controversies and public relations nightmares. A few of those include:
- The 2011 NFL lockout, the first labor dispute the league had since 1987. The lockout lasted 18 weeks.
- The 2012 referee lockout, where a labor dispute led to the NFL starting the season with replacement referees. Blown calls throughout the first 3 weeks of the season embarrassed the league and energized contract negotiations that led to increased wages and a 401(k).
- "Deflategate," a scandal about whether Tom Brady was aware of Patriots employees deflating footballs. The NFL suspended Brady for four games, a decision that got reversed by the U.S. District Court - and then reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
- Punishments for domestic abuse allegations by NFL players that many deemed insufficient, stemming from a two-game suspension to Ravens running back Ray Rice after being charged with assault. When a graphic video of the assault surfaced, Rice was cut by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended by Goodell.
- Goodell's and the NFL owners' inability to address players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality in a way that did not make things more controversial, particularly when they voted on a policy requiring players to either stand for the anthem or star in the locker room without consulting the NFLPA. Not long after, the NFL announced that there would not be a new rule regarding the anthem.
Despite these controversies, the NFL remains a powerhouse in American sports.