Pro football is a largely American past time. The most talented and famous college football players seek careers in this sport, often for large multiyear contacts. Pro football is played mainly in the fall and early winter, when media coverage of pro football dominates the airwaves.
There are many different forms of pro football, but The National Football League is the most successful and most visible pro league. Today, the NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry. It has television contracts with CBS, NBC, ESPN and the Fox Network. There is even an NFL Network which broadcasts games.
The NFL started as an 11 team loose association in 1920. Familiar teams like the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears were a part of this lineup. More exotic clubs like the Oorang Indians were also in the league.
Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, the popularity of college football still dwarfed that of the NFL. The 1958 championship between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts would start to change that. The first game to go into sudden death overtime, it held the nation spellbound and made men like Johnny Unitas national legends and commercial powerhouses.
Along the way, other pro football leagues have competed with the NFL. The American Football League was the most successful challenger. Started in 1960 by a group of eight owners known as "the Foolish Club".
The AFL placed clubs in cities where the NFL was not located, and only challenged the NFL in New York City and Los Angeles, though the NFL founded the Dallas Cowboys that same year to compete with AFL founder Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans.
The younger league was innovative, creating a more pass-happy brand of football that appealed to fans. Though the public perception was the AFL did not rival the NFL’s excellence, it was considered highly entertaining. The AFL also started bidding wars for star college players, creating an atmosphere of intrigue and skulduggery between the two leagues. Teams were known to sneak prospective players out of hotel windows to make a signing.
The Super Bowl
Eventually, the NFL and AFL agreed to a once-a-year showdown bowl. The NFL-AFL Championship Game would come to be known as The Super Bowl. Though the NFL dominated the first two of these, the AFL’s New York Jets, led by Joe Namath, won the third Super Bowl. When the Kansas City Chiefs, formerly known as the Dallas Texans, won the fourth Super Bowl, it was evident that the leagues were equals.
Mainly to avoid the constant and costly bidding wars for athletes, the NFL agreed to incorporate the younger league into their own. These became the foundation for the two competing NFL conferences of today: the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC).
Today, the NFL comprises 32 teams in most of the major sports markets. The Super Bowl is an unofficial national holiday, and thousands of fans wait for the opening weekend of pro football in early September every year.
Of course, there are other forms of pro football flourishing in the world.
The Canadian Football League
The Canadian Football League was founded in 1958. It currently consists of eight teams, all located in Canada. The number of teams has fluctuated over the years, sometimes including American cities such as Las Vegas. The teams of the CFL compete for the Grey Cup.
There are many differences in American and Canadian football. The CFL tries to promote a passing style of offense. Instead of a four down possession, the CFL only allows three downs to acquire ten yards for a new first down. The field is wider and longer, with it 120 yards instead of the standard American football field length of 100 yards. There are other differences, such as allowing one receiver to get a running start towards the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball.
The CFL season starts in the summer and goes into the early autumn.
Arena Football has its own niche market. It has lasted and sometimes flourished throughout its nearly 20 years of existence. Founded in 1987, the league has its own NBC contract. With faster paced games and a spring schedule, Arena Football chose to avoid direct competition with the NFL. Today, it has a unique ownership group, including Jon Bon Jovi and Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones.
Arena football is played at indoors facilities, often where hockey or indoor soccer are played. The field is only 50 yards long and the teams are smaller, with only eight players. Seven of these players are two-way, meaning they play both offense and defense. The eighth player is the quarterback and his defensive counterpart on the other side of the ball.
Defunct Pro Football Leagues
There have been several famous yet unsuccessful pro football leagues. In 1973, the World Football League tried to compete with the NFL, working the same magic the AFL did a few years earlier. NFL stars like Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, Larry Kiick and Ken Stabler signed with the WFL. Though the WFL failed within two years, the signing of three offensive stars did derail the Miami Dolphins dynasty of the early 1970′s.
The USFL formed in 1983, boasting high profile owners like Donald Trump. This league signed major college stars like Doug Flutie, Hershel Walker and Steve Young. It competed in the spring and had a contract with ABC Sports. The USFL business model was unsound and top heavy with salaries for a few stars, and it never found traction. After winning a court case against the NFL, but only receiving $1 in the settlement, the USFL folded in 1985.
The XFL was started by WWE owner, Vince McMahon, in partnership with NBC. NBC was still smarting from having lost its NFL broadcasting contract to CBS, and decided to launch a league to compete with the NFL. They chose not to compete directly, though, placing the games in the spring and choosing to field teams of unknown, lowly paid players.
The XFL boasted a few rules changes, like the scrum for who would get the opening kickoff. It also featured announcers with attitude, including a running feud between announcer Jesse Ventura and one of the league’s head coaches. Instead of names on the backs of jerseys, players could put their own identification, leading to the famous "He Hate Me" worn by Rod Smart.
Though the XFL started with high ratings, it lost the audience week by week due to low scoring games and lack of star appeal. It lasted only one season.