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Some NFL facts
The National Football League (NFL) is the largest professional American football league, consisting of thirty-two teams from American cities and regions. The league’s teams are divided into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference is then further divided into four divisions consisting of four teams each, labeled East, West, North, and South.
During the league’s regular season, each team plays 16 games over a 17-week period generally from September to January. At the end of each regular season, the six best teams from each conference play in the NFL playoffs, a 12-team single-elimination tournament that culminates with 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 or a popular college stadium. One week later, selected all-star players from both the AFC and NFC meet in the Pro Bowl.
Formed in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, the NFL is one of the major professional sports leagues of North America. It also has by far the highest per-game attendance of any domestic professional sports league in the world; its 2005 attendance of 67,593 per game was over 25,000 higher than the 2005-06 per-game attendance of the league in second place, the Bundesliga in German football (soccer).
The NFL’s greatest spurt in popularity came in the 1960s and 1970s after the 1958 NFL Championship Game (which went into overtime); and the emergence of the rival American Football League (AFL) (1960-1969), and the NFL’s eventual merger with it in 1970. Prior to the 1960s, the most popular version of American football was played collegiately, with many players opting to play in the Canadian Football League after graduation because they were offered larger sums of money and benefits during that era.
Like the American college football game from which it sprung, NFL football is a descendant of English Association Football, better known in the United States as “soccer”. Soccer developed into rugby, which was imported to the United States from Canada in 1874, and then transformed into American college football. Professional football in the United States 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 professional 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 (AFL), was founded in 1960.
The AFL introduced features that the NFL did not have, such as wider-open passing offenses, flashier uniforms with players’ names on their jerseys, and an official clock visible to fans so that they knew the time remaining in a period (the NFL kept time by a game referee’s watch, and only periodically announced the actual time). The newer league also secured itself financially after it established the precedents for gate and television revenue sharing between all of its teams, and network television broadcasts all of its games.
The AFL also forced the NFL to expand in order to compete: The Dallas Cowboys were created to force the AFL’s Dallas Texans to move the franchise to Kansas City as the Chiefs; the Minnesota Vikings were the NFL franchise given to Max Winter for abandoning the AFL; and the Atlanta Falcons franchise went to Rankin Smith to dissuade him from purchasing the AFL’s Miami Dolphins. It is most likely that if the AFL had never existed, neither would have the Cowboys, the Vikings, or the Falcons.
The ensuing costly war for players between the NFL and AFL almost derailed the sport’s ascent. By 1966, the leagues agreed to merge as of the 1970 season. The ten 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 an AFL-NFL Championship game that for four years determined the so-called “World Championship of Professional Football”. After the merger, the then-renamed Super Bowl became the NFL’s championship game.
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 1991, 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, NFL Network.
In the early years, the league was not stable and teams moved frequently. Franchise mergers were popular during World War II in response to the scarcity of players.
Franchise moves became far more controversial in the late 20th century when a vastly more popular NFL, free from financial instability, allowed many franchises to abandon long-held strongholds for perceived financially greener pastures. While owners invariably cited financial difficulties as the primary factor in such moves, many fans bitterly disputed these contentions, especially in Cleveland, Baltimore and St. Louis, each of which eventually received teams some years after their original franchises left (the Browns, Ravens, and the Rams respectively).
Additionally, with the increasing suburbanization of the U.S. shifting of franchises from the central city to the suburbs became popular from the 1970s on, though at the turn of the millennium a reverse shift back to the central city became somewhat evident.
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