Key moments that made the NFL
First NFL draft
Frustrated by his Eagles’ inability to keep pace in a free-market bidding war for All-American collegiate star Stan Kosta, owner Bert Bell proposed the draft at a meeting in 1935. The concept rolled out the next spring, and its basic design survives to this day in the NFL and across all American leagues. The parity created — in theory — by giving the worst teams first dibs on new stars has been crucial to the league’s growth, but it also mitigated rising labor costs at a time when most franchises were still wobbly.
In literal terms, Dallas was the first permanent franchise in the South, itself an important territorial claim. But in spirit, the Cowboys were the first squad to be marketed to a national audience. The iconic star logo, the cheerleaders and the great teams built by Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and Tom Landry ensnared a generation of fans. By the late 1970s, NFL Films had branded the Cowboys as “America’s Team.” Texas Stadium was a forerunner in business as well, ushering in high-revenue-producing luxury boxes and stadium bonds, a forerunner to personal seat licenses.
Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961
As far as the mid-20th century American judicial system was concerned, teams in the same sports league were competitors on the field and off it. Therefore, collectively selling media rights to an entire league amounted to an antitrust violation. Partly due to the aggressive lobbying of then-new NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Congress and President John F. Kennedy created a law allowing the sale of media rights packages — packages that today generate $5 billion each year for the league.
1963 and 1964
NFL Properties and NFL Films launch
These two subsidiaries combined to make the world’s most powerful sports public relations and marketing engine. In 1963, the league founded NFL Properties to control licensing rights to every team and the league — marks that can be found on a dizzying array of products around the world. The next year, the NFL bought Ed Sabol’s Blair Motion Picture Co., which would go on to immortalize the sport’s iconic moments in a distinctive style. Other sports properties took decades to catch up.
Of all the ways the AFL-NFL wars of the 1960s could have ended, an amicable merger was perhaps one of the more unlikely versions. The AFL had demonstrated its commercial viability and was hardly on the ropes. Both could have continued along in a costly battle for talent. But forward-thinking executives, led by Cowboys GM Tex Schramm and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, saw a better way and gradually brought the two sides together with meaningful results. The combined league has sat atop the American sports ecosystem since then, and has never again been seriously challenged.
First union contract
Twelve years after the NFLPA was created, owners recognized the union. In short order, negotiations over a deal broke down and the players threatened to strike. The owners locked them out, and the brief work stoppage ended with the first deal: a minimum salary for rookies of $9,000 and $10,000 for veterans; exhibition game pay stayed at $50 per game — far less than the players demanded. But the union at the time didn’t represent AFL players, so it had limited leverage.
Super Bowl III
The champions of the AFL and NFL had faced off twice already since the merger, but the Jets-Colts matchup in January 1969 was when the Super Bowl as we know it today was born. It had everything: a glamorous tropical location, a big-market underdog led by a charismatic, attractive quarterback, and a more traditional Colts squad with legends all around the roster. Joe Namath guaranteed a victory, and then pulled off one of history’s great upsets. The notion that the Super Bowl is not merely a game, but a cultural spectacle, took root in the Orange Bowl that night.
‘Monday Night Football’ launch
Pete Rozelle wanted a massive prime-time audience for a featured game. ABC wanted a catalyst to pull it out of a distant third place among the major networks. Enter “Monday Night Football” and the creative mind of founding producer Roone Arledge, who ordered twice the cameras, a third broadcaster, extensive graphical elements and instant replay. Four years later, ex-Beatle John Lennon gave his reviews to Howard Cosell during a broadcast: “It makes rock concerts look like tea parties.” Sadly, Cosell would announce Lennon’s death to viewers in 1980.
Start of modern free agency
After a court struck down Plan B free agency in 1992, all-world defensive lineman Reggie White led a class-action lawsuit that forced the NFL to accept the modern framework of free agency in January 1993. White’s decision to sign with Green Bay months later was also important: It proved that free agency would not necessarily drive talent to the biggest markets as skeptics feared. The ensuing collective-bargaining agreement instituted the salary cap for the first time.
Fox’s rights purchase
Many people thought the NFL would take a step back on total TV revenue when media packages went out to bid in 1994. But that view didn’t count on the upstart Fox network paying nearly $1.6 billion to pull the NFC package away from longtime NFL partner CBS, shooting prices sky high. Fox’s innovative production and expensive hires lent it instant credibility, and the cash infusion pushed the new salary cap higher. Fox has never left.
Creation of NFL Sunday Ticket
The league had leveraged free TV and a regionalized schedule to make its clubs the biggest show in each of their markets, but out-of-market fans were still limited to national broadcasts until 1994. The DirecTV satellite package further nationalized the NFL fan base, allowing Steelers fans in Southern California or Dolphins fans in Chicago a way to see every down. It was a key component of DirecTV’s growth through the 1990s and 2000s, and created extraordinary demand among sports bars and restaurants. And all this without undercutting the steady upward pace of broadcast rights.
By the mid 1990s, there had been only three new NFL stadiums built in two decades, and most of the league played in aging facilities with insufficient revenue-production capability. But starting with the expansion Jaguars in 1995, 17 new stadiums opened for business over the next nine years as owners and local governments took advantage of the strong economy to upgrade. The era also caused upheaval, with four teams relocating as cities learned clubs were willing to walk away if they couldn’t get a stadium deal.
Founding of NFL Network
Funded with a $100 million contribution from the league’s 32 teams, the NFL Network launched in just 11.5 million households during the 2003 season. At first mostly a landing place for NFL Films archives, it rapidly gained fans and developed on-air stars like Rich Eisen and Adam Schefter. Three years later it began airing live games to force more cable distributors to carry it. It wasn’t the first league-owned cable network, but it’s the most successful.
First international game
After years of exhibition games abroad, the Cardinals and the 49ers took over Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on Oct. 2, 2005, for a regular-season tilt. Marketed as “Fútbol Americano,” the experiment drew the largest NFL crowd ever at 103,000 fans. Two years later, the London games started. While the league’s international expansion has been gradual and deliberate, league officials believe it’s a huge success. The biggest dreamers now talk about Super Bowls and franchises abroad.
As criticism mounted over its lethargic and, at times, combative engagement on player brain safety, the NFL made a series of announcements in 2009 that ushered in a sea change on the concussion issue. First, the league declared that only independent experts can clear players to return to games after brain injuries. Then, it instituted the modern concussion protocol. Finally, spokesman Greg Aiello told The New York Times it’s “quite obvious” concussions can lead to long-term problems, a 180-degree turn on prior league statements. The league also pledged to fund more research. The modern era of player safety regulation had begun.
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