The National Football League, founded in 1920, was an unpopular pipsqueak 90 or so years ago. The low-paid players barely practiced because they couldn’t take time away from their weekday jobs. The college player who went first in the 1936 draft, a Heisman Trophy winner, decided to become a foam rubber salesman instead of turning pro. Strategy was rudimentary, partly because passing the ball was restricted.
In the 1930s, though, the N.F.L. began to change the rules of the game in a way that encouraged passing, made scoring easier and elevated the role of strategy. To their credit, the league’s owners realized they had a product in need of a big refresh, and acted on it. Today’s game is fascinating to watch, and the league is an enormous success.
How enormous? Sunday’s Super Bowl is pretty much certain to be the most-watched televised event of 2024; N.F.L. games accounted for an astounding 93 of the 100 most-watched programs of 2023, according to Nielsen.
With that kind of viewership, it’s no surprise that the N.F.L. is the world’s biggest sports league by revenue. Forbes magazine recently estimated the market value of the N.F.L. teams at $163 billion. That makes them collectively — and they are a collective — about as valuable as IBM, Nike or Pfizer.
For its first 12 years, the N.F.L. followed the rules of college football. That changed in 1932, when it appointed its own rules committee, now known as the competition committee, according to an article on the N.F.L. website. That year, in the N.F.L.’s first playoff, a fullback for the Chicago Bears named Bronko Nagurski faked a plunge and then lobbed a touchdown pass to the great Red Grange. The opposing team, the long-forgotten Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, complained that the lob was illegal because at the time, passes had to be made from five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The rules committee did away with the five-yard rule in 1933. “That change provided a big lift to the passing attack, which boosted scoring and differentiated N.F.L. play from the college game,” the article said.
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