The National Football League (NFL) is one of the most successful professional sports organizations anywhere in the world. The NFL successfully marketed a game that has no significant participatory base outside of North America to global prominence through the media frenzy of the Super Bowl, its annual championship game.
The NFL was founded in 1920, a league that was a progression from the semiprofessional clubs that had sprung up in the working-class towns of the eastern United States, particularly in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The NFL's birth took place against the backdrop of the higher profile competitions and rivalries that were developing between the university teams of the era. The Big Ten Conference, which included such noted football institutions as Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Northwestern University, was located in the same region as many of the new professional franchises. Each school had an established fan base, both as a result of the glamour attached to college sports, as well as through the loyalty that college alumni possessed for their former schools.
The NFL began its existence as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) with a membership of 22 teams in 1920. Olympic decathlon champion and accomplished footballer Jim Thorpe was named the first president of the association. Many years before the racial makeup of NFL coaching staffs became a controversial issue, in 1921 Fredrick "Fritz" Pollard (1894–1986) was the first African American to lead an NFL team. After two years of play and a number of reorganizations among the membership, the APFA changed its name to the NFL in 1922. By 1925, the NFL had established tentative roots in small cities such as Canton, Ohio, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Buffalo, New York, as well attracting franchises to New York and Chicago. In an effort to stimulate a broader public interest in the game and to build the credibility of the new league, collegiate All-Americans Ernie Nevers and George "Red" Gramge, the most famous football players of the era, were signed to NFL contracts.
The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II combined to blunt the ability of the NFL to grow; the NFL did not have a franchise in the western United States until the 1940s. During this period, the NFL remained a distant third choice in the popularity of the American team sports public, far behind baseball and college football.
The end of World War II was accompanied by the return of servicemen who had played high level football in the armed forces. The All-America Football-Conference, established as a rival to the NFL, signed many of these players, and by 1950 the franchises from the All-American Football Conference were absorbed into the NFL. More importantly, the 1950s
With television coverage came an unforeseen bonanza for the NFL team owners; where the survival of franchises had previously depended on gate receipts, television revenues, which the NFL owners agreed would be divided equally among the member clubs, were crucial to the stability of the league. Teams from relatively small media markets such as Green Bay had essentially the same available resources to spend on their teams as did large-market centers such as New York or Los Angeles.
A group of football entrepreneurs who had sought to take advantage of the increases in the growth of football had formed the rival American Football League (AFL) in 1960. It was the merger of this league with the NFL in 1967, initiated by NFL commissioner Pete Rozell (1926–1996) that created the championship known as the Super Bowl. From a rather pedestrian merger game in its first two years, the Super Bowl took its first step as a media event in 1970 when an AFL team, the New York Jets, defeated the heavily favored NFL team, the Baltimore Colts.
By 1990, the Super Bowl was one of the top three rated television broadcasts on North American television; single 30-second commercial spots were sold for over three million dollars each, with the public reaction to the commercials a media subject by itself. The quality of the game, which was often significantly below the level of play during the NFL regular season, was often secondary to the Super Bowl spectacle.
With increased television exposure, a collateral force drove the popularity of the NFL: the wagering industry. The "Vegas line," the established odds on every game played each week in the NFL, became a part of North American slang. Fantasy (or "rotisserie league") football became a popular pastime by the year 2000; fantasy leagues are created by participants who each select mock teams comprised of actual NFL players, with the week-to-week statistics accumulated by the chosen players representing the method of scoring in the fantasy league.
The NFL has continued to expand its revenue base, in the face of a number of issues that carried with them negative publicity. Anabolic steroid use is regarded by the public as an ever-present feature of NFL life, yet the occasional positive test for these performance-enhancing substances has evidently not diminished public appeal. The NFL is one of very few sports leagues anywhere in the world that does not have to spend significant monies on player development. The NFL, other than through the maintenance of the franchises of NFL Europe, a developmental league, has the benefit of the successful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), whose college football program supplied virtually all of the players who compete in the NFL. "Free agency," the ability of players to sell their services to the highest bidder, has altered the competitive landscape in the NFL, as franchise owners are driven to achieve immediate success, as opposed to building a team with a consistent player base.