The NFL turns 100 this month and to celebrate we’re going to explore the origins of America’s favorite pastime... wait, that’s baseball. Anywho - while the NFL blows out a century’s worth of candles, let’s take a look at the evolution of the sport.
Football as we know it today is a relative newcomer to the athletic scene. In the mid-1800’s, university sports clubs across North America were making tweaks to the rules of both rugby and soccer, which would ultimately birth a whole new game -gridiron football (so dubbed for the vertical yard markings across the rectangular field of play).
During this time, the sport was essentially a free-for-all. Each team had made their own adaptations to the rules of soccer or rugby and were basically playing slightly different sports against one another - resulting in particularly violent matches. The Rutgers and Princeton match in 1869 is considered the first intercollegiate football game, mainly because both sides agreed upon a standard set of guidelines prior to the game. But it was the changes introduced by the “Father of American Football”, Walter Camp in the 1880’s that shaped the sport.
Camp was a medical student and rugby player at Yale and of course, a footballer. He is credited with introducing the line of scrimmage, the 11-man team and the requirement that teams give up the ball if they fail to move it down the field a specified yardage in the required amount of “downs”. Professional football teams began popping up in the early 20th century, but their games were far less popular than their collegiate counterparts. Pro team owners from Ohio, Illinois and New York banded together on September 17, 1920 to formalize the guidelines for a professional league. Meeting in the showroom of a car dealership outside Canton, Ohio they formed the American Professional Football Association (APFA), hoping to work collaboratively to popularize the sport - and start turning a profit.
In 1922, the APFA was rebranded as the National Football League and the popularity of the sport continued to grow over the years. By 1959 the sport was a burgeoning cash cow and drew interest from businessmen looking to buy franchises to expand the league. The NFL wasn't having it and, unable to money-whip the problem, they took matters into their own hands by forming a rival organization - the American Football League.
The NFL and AFL competed for both fans and players until 1966 when they signed a merger to integrate operations and season schedules. The new league was called the NFL and was split into two conferences - the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). The creation of a championship game between the two - the Super Bowl - set the stage for the sport's explosive growth.
The NFL today has grown larger and more popular than those early players and coaches could have ever imagined. The last Super Bowl alone reported viewership of over 99 million worldwide!
Image by Hence the Boom