History of Professional Football
by Joe Paciella - 09/01/2007
On Jan. 4, 2005, USC pummeled Oklahoma in the BCS title game. Auburn won their bowl game over Virginia Tech to remain unbeaten, as did Utah. This left three teams with a goose egg in the loss column. How did we decide who won? Well, we left it up to a computer program, naturally. What's crazy isn't the fact that our national champion was crowned from an algorithm that came from some NASA astrophysics lab, but that Americans have seen this before...in professional football.
The Akron Pros finished the 1920 season at 8-0-3, but only won the championship after a League meeting awarded it on April 30, 1921. NFL.com reports that year 14 teams strapped on their leather helmets and compiled records from playing teams that were both in the league and outside of the league. However, other sources maintain that there were only 11 teams in the organization during this first recorded season of what would later be known as the NFL.
The first "playoff" game was in 1932 between the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans, when they finished the season tied for first. The Bears won a shootout, 9-0.
1933 introduced "conferences," as the league broke into an Eastern and Western division, with the best team in each meeting for a title game. The Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants, 23-21, in the first real championship game. Teams now began to gravitate towards larger cities, such as Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The last small city team remaining is the Green Bay Packers. Franchises such as the Duluth Eskimos or the Pottsville Maroons found it impossible to survive in the league's new format. Other small cities simply ran out of odd team nicknames.
As many people know, a big step in the growth of the NFL was the 1970 merger between the NFL and AFL. The original AFL consisted of eight teams, created by former Chiefs owner, the late Lamar Hunt. What many people think is that the AFL's legitimacy came right after Broadway Joe Namath ran off the field, index finger in the air after beating the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III. This isn't 100 percent true. The point spreads were actually still very much in favor of the older brother NFL through Super Bowl IV. The Kansas City Chiefs came in as a 10-point underdog, but took care of the Vikings and justified their place, and the place of the rest of the AFL in the league.
What did the merger actually mean for professional football? Well, think of it as the Louisiana Purchase of professional sports. Initially, it combined the AFL's nine teams with the NFL's 15 teams and gave both leagues something that they didn't have before. It gave the NFL rapid expansion, the two point conversion, the concept of player names on jerseys and having the home and visiting team share both the gate and television revenue for the game. It also ushered in a new brand of football, which included a less conservative, pass happy approach to scoring points. What the AFL received was a place in a league that was and had been established for about four decades.
The two leagues also combined to one draft. Before this, owners would try to outbid each other for college players, thus making their league stronger by keeping good players away from the other league.
Through 1969, the leagues played separate schedules with the champions from each meeting for a title game. The 1970 regular season saw the first inter-conference play.
With the merger also came TV contracts. CBS, NBC and ABC were the networks that televised the games. This was a huge jump from previous TV deals, since the nation could now tune into Howard Cosell every Monday night in primetime.
There has been slower expansion after the merger, mostly to ensure that talent would not get diluted or a team placed in a bad market. The league is now capped at 32 teams, locking in two symmetrical conferences, a balanced schedule and a playoff format that makes sense. The NFL saw what happened as baseball tried to expand too quickly. They got the Marlins, who struggle filling their stands with even family members and they watched the pool of good middle relievers be stretched too thin. The NFL wants a solid product.
We now have coverage from CBS, FOX, NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network, with games or analysis just about every minute of the day. If you want to know what Matt Leinart ate for lunch, you can probably find it out.
The NFL has come a long way since the days of the Akron Pros and the Canton Bulldogs. Many leagues can learn something from them in the way they handled not just expansion, but change in general. They saw change as not an obstacle, but as an opportunity to better the league and the product they gave back to the fans.