The NFL (National Football League) is one of the, wealthiest and most powerful sports organizations in the world. Many of the single franchises or teams are worth $200-300 million each. As such, each team should be thought of as a major corporation.
American-style football, of which the NFL maintains a complete monopoly over the elite professional ranks, has its roots in English rugby, which was played in U.S. Eastern colleges and universities in the nineteenth century. However, rugby did not have features in keeping with American cultural norms. So U.S. football arose out of norms consistent with American society, such as clearly measured possession of territory and the expansion of frontiers through conquering new land.
Walter Camp, a Yale player, devised the rules of the American game. In 1880, he introduced “downs” into the game, or breaks so that teams could re-assess their position and prepare for the next attack. This was in stark contrast to rugby’s non-stop and more flowing play. This move would years later be crucial to the sport’s success.
With natural breaks in play, the game would be one conducive to American commercial television, which relies on advertisement breaks for the generation of revenue. Equally important was the later inclusion of the forward pass into the game. This made the game appear more offensive, and the famous “Hail Mary” long pass is to this day one of the most dramatic plays in sport.
Football’s success as a dominant American sport (alongside baseball) was secured in the 1960s with some important contracts with television networks. The ABC television network sponsored a rival American Football League to compete with the other dominant National Football League. ABC television did not hide the fact that the rival league was created for the sole purpose of creating more leverage with advertisers. After gaining greater legitimacy and earning more revenue, the up-start AFL was able to negotiate independently with other television networks and sign on big-name players. The most notable was star quarterback Joe Namath. With the AFL rising as a legitimate business competitor, the NFL and AFL negotiated a merger, resulting in the NFL league, as it is known to this day. Since the merger, the NFL has maintained almost a complete monopoly over American professional football.
Football’s success, then, has been a reflection of the ideals of American society and, more specifically, of American-style commercial enterprise. The league’s success has, in no small part, been due to the relationship between the media and the sport. In a sense, football is a perfect example of a modern media-generated sport, successfully linking American norms and values with a sport tailor-made for commercial profit.