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The evolution of NFL: From its inception to present day

The Super Bowl has long been the most important day on the US sporting calendar. Whether it’s the game itself, the half-time show or the ads that the American people tune in for, it is the perennial leader in viewed telecasts each year, averaging 100.7 million viewers over the last 20 years. It has become an event that transcends sport with people from all walks of life becoming invested in the festivities. NFL odds struggled to separate this year’s participants but it was the Kansas City Chiefs who would take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a narrow victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

This is a far cry the early years of the Super Bowl and even more so from the sport itself. The NFL was founded on 17 September 1920 in Canton, Ohio. Ten football teams gathered to create the American Professional Football Association (APFA), now known as the National Football League (NFL). Four more teams joined the League later that year, rounding out the 14 Original NFL Towns. These teams hailed from: Muncie, Columbus, Detroit, Cleveland, Canton, Rochester, Dayton, Buffalo, Akron, Hammond, Decatur, Rock Island and two from Chicago. It was renamed to the NFL two years later and the playoff system to determine a winner was established in 1933, formerly determining a winner by end of season standings.

The league would welcome a few changes over the next three decades, within which the rival American Football League (AFL) would be founded. It was in 1967 that the two found an agreement to merge, thus birthing the Super Bowl, to determine the best team between the two. The first Super Bowl game, contested by the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, would draw a total TV audience of 50 million, paling in comparison to today’s numbers. This merger was completed in 1970 with the NFL swallowing the AFL to become one complete league of 26 teams. There would be numerous expansions over the next thirty years with the final one coming in 2002, when the NFL expanded to it’s current 32-team, two-conference, eight-division concept.

The league has experienced plenty of changes off of the field since it’s inception however, changes that would lead to it becoming the richest in the world by revenue. The first major television network to cover an NFL game was NBC when they broadcast a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 22, 1939. The network broadcast the game to the roughly 1,000 TV sets in New York City at the time and to displays in the RCA Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Though football on TV was yet to take off – mainly down to the fact that so few households owned one – the seed was planted. 

After the second World War, consumers began purchasing TVs at a much higher rate. The first NFL championship to be televised was the 1948 match between the Eagles and Chicago Cardinals. By the 1950s, select teams had deals made to broadcast a portion of their games and the DuMont Network then paid a rights fee of $75,000 to broadcast the 1951 NFL Championship Game across the entire nation. 

These numbers would rise dramatically over the next 15 years and in 1964, CBS had completed a two-year contract to air the NFL for $9.3 million. Inflation makes that around $30 million today, a paltry number compared to current rights deals. It was around this time that players began to take note of the multi-million dollar deals made by the league and rightly wanted their fair share. In 1968, the NFLPA, the player’s union, voted to have its first player strike in hopes of better compensation. This led to the first collective bargaining agreement being side meaning that there were minimum salaries of $9,000 for rookies and $10,000 for veterans among other benefits, again being dwarfed by today’s standards.

As media interest in the sport rose over the next 20 years, the rights and advertising deals would rise year-on-year. By 1977, the total fee to air the Super Bowl jumped to $646 million with viewership of the game rising to over 100 million for the first time the following year. The NFL solidified its dominance as America’s top spectator sport. Player bargaining power became stronger as the money piled up for the league and in 1980, Johnny Jones signed the first million-dollar deal in the NFL. The contract was for 2.1 $M in 1980 with the NY Jets. This would become the norm throughout the late 80s and 90s and by the new millennium they exploded to unprecedented levels.

Football players and top athletes in general were now bonafide superstars, allowing them to sign huge endorsement deals outside of the sport as well as rake in money through their profession. The NFL’s media deals were way into the billions and eventually hundreds of billions. What started in a small city in Ohio has now become the premier sports league in the nation and one of the biggest in the entire world.

Though viewing figures have dwindled slightly in recent years, it is still the most viewed sport in the US. The future seems to be geared towards bringing in a younger generation of fans, starting with the integration of eSports. The NFL is here to stay and will remain the biggest ride in town for quite some time.

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