It has been a perfect marriage. They are made for each other. TV and American football. But it took time for the NFL to consolidate into the sports and entertainment empire it is today. The rise of television was more than key to it. It all started in 1939 with the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Brooklyn Dodgers.
It’s Super Bowl weekend. By far the most watched sporting event in the United States and attracts one of the highest numbers of NFL spreads for gamblers. Nearly 100 million people follow the final match for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It is estimated that for the host city, the economic benefit of a Super Sunday is between 300-500 million dollars.
However, this financial and audience success has not always been there for the NFL. It took a long time for the professional American to become a profitable sport, followed by the masses.
The NFL was founded in 1920 in Canton, Ohio, under the name “American Professional Football Association.” At that time, baseball, horse racing, boxing, and college football were the most popular and followed sports in the United States.
John Eisenberg, in his book “The League,” says that the rise of the professional American was not well received by the public. The sport was associated more with an amateur activity that served to form the character of young people. Paying someone to practice this sport simply did not seem like it to many.
Fourteen years after its inception, the NFL had an average attendance per game of just over 13,000 fans. These numbers would have been less were it not for the fact that there were teams in big cities like Chicago and New York.
Few fans meant little income. For this reason, many teams that emerged in the NFL soon disappeared. Between its start in 1920 and the end of the 1931 season, a total of 35 franchises failed and bid farewell to the league.
In its first season, the NFL had 12 teams. By the second year, there were 17. By 1926, 22 teams were competing. But for the 1932 season, only 8 teams survived.
The American professional was also not lucrative for his players. The salary per game was around $250. Many players were in the league, having nothing else to do. Several left the sport after finding a better source of income.
The Arrival of Television
Team owners realized they had to make gaming and esports more attractive if they want it to be a viable business. They understood that they were also in the entertainment business. They changed rules and evolved to please the public more.
World War II gave the professional American a boost. While other sports suspended activities, the NFL continued to operate. Although struggling to complete teams, the league began to gain fans. Many associated rough physical sport with war and supporting their troops abroad.
But the boost during the war was not enough. The true takeoff for the Americans began with the arrival of television.
The First Game and Turning Point
The first televised game was a Philadelphia Eagles vs. Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939. Two cameras and 8 crews were used to broadcast the game. The NBC broadcast reached a thousand televisions. As the day was cloudy, the image was not the best. But it was the beginning of a watershed in the sport.
Some team owners had their reservations. They believed that showing their games on television would drive fans away from the stadiums, as many would prefer to watch the game for free at home or in a bar. Your main source of income would be affected.
But the NFL adapted little by little. He created rules for broadcasters to compensate teams if stadium attendance dropped. Then came the blackout rules that prevented local broadcasts to encourage people who were physically close to go to the stadium.
The Perfect Marriage
Despite the owners’ reservations, television took the NFL to places where it was little known and followed. It generated new fans in cities that had no teams.
The turning point came when national broadcasts became possible. By 1954, NFL games accounted for a third of the Sunday television audience.
In 1951 NBC had paid $100,000 to broadcast the championship game from coast to coast, in 1957, CBS paid $1 million for the rights to the entire season. A significant change, since 10 years earlier, Halas had sold the rights to the Chicago Bears home games for just $900 per game.
Stadium attendance grew. In 1950, around 25,000 fans attended each game. By 1958, the average was more than 43,000.
That year the championship game between the Unitas Colts and the Giants was watched on television by 40 million! A fifth of the United States saw a dramatic and exciting game that was decided in sudden death. The perfect marriage between television and American football had been consecrated.
Made For Each Other
Visually, American football was perfect for television. It is easy to appreciate the detail of what happens on the pitch. Breaks between moves allow for commentary, analysis, and instant replays.
Today each game has between one or two dozen cameras and hundreds of staff for its broadcasts. For last year’s Super Bowl alone, CBS used 120 cameras on the court and around the stadium.
For a long time, the main income of the NFL has been from television rights. Earnings hover in the billions of dollars. For television, the business is also good. The average Sunday game audience is between 15-17 million viewers. In addition, there are prime-time games on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights.
TV and American football are definitely made for each other. The best example is that today the Super Bowl will be followed on television by those of us who are red-bone fans but also by many who know or follow the sport little. Why? Because the union of television and the NFL have created one of the best sources of entertainment. Super Sunday is just the icing on a big cake.