Column: How the NFL went from podunk to the biggest show in sports


Is there any angle on the Super Bowl that someone hasn’t analyzed and scrutinized? There’s scholarly research into the emotional recall of Super Bowl advertising, Auto Club stats on the Super Bowl and drunk driving. And it does teach people Roman numerals, sort of — Hey, remember Super Bowl XXXIV? That was a doozy!

Now we’re at Super Bowl LIII — the 53rd year, and the first Super Bowl is as distant from the current one as the end of the Civil War is from the end of the First World War. Craig Coenen’s book “From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920 to 1967,” marches through the improbable ascent of pro football from a low-rent, small-town sport to the most-watched game in the country, capped by the over-the-top touchdown-and-guacamole glut that has become our unofficial national holiday.

The NFL we see now, with this mega-production of the Super Bowl, must have been unimaginable when pro football first started.

When the NFL first started in 1920, pro football had been around for a few years and nobody really cared much for it. Football as an entity had its fan base with college football with upper-class people and middle-class people, and for working-class people, largely they had semi-professional football. And teams that played were made up of local boys who worked in the factories and pro football had no place.

In the 1920s, in the NFL alone there were scores and scores of franchises that just came into the NFL and faded out, especially in big cities. Some of the most successful franchises in the NFL back in the early days were those in smaller towns because they didn't have as much to offer the fan base as a city like New York.

What sort of teams in what sort of towns came and went?

In the earliest stages, in the ’20s, there are teams from small towns that you may not have heard of ever, like Pottsville, Pa., or Rock Island, Ill. And some of them were quite successful. In fact, in 1925, the Pottsville Maroons were the best football team in the league.

The Pottsville Maroons?

The Pottsville Maroons, in a small coal mining town in eastern-southeastern Pennsylvania. In Green Bay, Wis., for example, and same with Pottsville, Pa., they didn't have any colleges in town back in those days. So there were no college football games. The Packers or the Pottsville Maroons might draw 3,000 customers who paid maybe a dollar per game. So in fact, the revenue earned by a small-town team was as great as or better than some of the big-town games.

What was another influence that made professional football so big?

It wasn't until the ’30s, when a new breed of NFL ownership took over some of these franchises. Their ownership said, we need to do something to differentiate ourselves from college football. And they created a championship game. They created an NFL draft. They made up rules that made the game more interesting. More passing was encouraged. They had a smaller football so that it would be more passing, more scoring.

They tried very hard to market themselves. In the 1930s, they had films created and they sent them out to various entities across the country trying to get people to watch the highlight reels — anything they could to sort of catch the public imagination.

And eventually the NFL got a championship game on nationwide radio. And the fans catch on that this was a different game, an interesting game, and something that was worth their time and money.

When did the star players start emerging?

In 1925, Red Grange went to the NFL. Red Grange was a major college football name and became sort of the Babe Ruth of pro football for a couple of years. When he came to the NFL they had large crowds for the Chicago Bears, where he played for the first year. The next year, in ’26, he went to the New York Yankees, which was a rival league franchise, and they drew larger crowds.

There was a football team called the New York Yankees?

There was a New York Yankees football team, then the Brooklyn Dodgers football team.

Was this OK with the baseball team owners?

Well, I'm sure that if they did it today, there'd be lawsuits, but back in those days, the owners didn't care as much. In fact, many of these teams played in the baseball stadiums and gave the owner of the baseball team a little stadium revenue in the off-season.

Red Grange was a big star, but within a couple of years, his star burned out. What really keeps a fan base is its allegiance to a team, and that didn't really happen until the late 1930s and early ’40s, when you start seeing strong fan bases who don't care if they have a star or not. They just want the teams to win.

What happened after the advent of television?

TV was an incredible impact. And pro football — like boxing and some of the other what they called junk sports, like wrestling and roller derby — was really a sport that was, unknowingly, unwittingly, made for television.

The owner of the Chicago Bears, George Halas, in 1949 signed a contract to put his team on television for the first time. He actually had to beg and beg and plead to put his team on TV. But he said more people saw the Bears play in 1949 than saw them play in the entire history of the Bears.

Within a decade, revenue from television went from nothing to about $100,000 or $150,000 a team. By 1970, every team was making over a million dollars. Right now I think it’s like $70 billion that all the networks combined are paying into the NFL. So it's gone from nothing to $70 billion in the course of 70 years.

TV helped make football what it is. It went from being a sleepy sport that had a small following to really becoming the national game.

That concept of a national game, you know the phrase, as American as baseball, apple pie and mom. How did pro football make itself arguably more popular than baseball?

The fact is that pro football is exciting; there’s a lot more scoring in pro football. Every three or four plays in football is high drama, whereas in baseball you might get a rally once or twice or three times in a game, or a home run. How many home runs can a team hit? One or two a game at the very most sometimes.

And especially the rule changes that have come around since the 1970s to make football even more pass-oriented and more exciting and more scoring really have captured the national imagination of American sports enthusiasts.

What has made the Super Bowl a cultural phenomenon ?

The United States totally stops on Super Bowl Sunday. I coach basketball for my sons, and we had a game scheduled at 7 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday and there was an uproar by parents and an uproar of referees, and of course it got rescheduled.

I teach a sports history class at Lehigh University every now and again. and one time I had a class Monday morning after the Super Bowl, and one student didn't watch the game, out of a class of 100. Everybody looked at that person like something was seriously wrong with that person.

It's the ultimate game. It's a lot of gambling, it's a social event, it's in the middle of wintertime, looking for something to come together and celebrate. It seems like the perfect contrived event to bring communities together.

What the Super Bowl has become was never envisioned. Back in the early ’60s, some of the old owners of the NFL had their first million-dollar TV contract, and George Halas said to Art Rooney, who was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, that such success is indecent.

Imagine what they would say now when they see hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars that are spent on and around the Super Bowl.

Not to be sacrilegious, but there are people who go to church only on Easter or on Christmas, and there are people who will only watch a football game when it's the Super Bowl.

It’s the league’s or the networks’ dream, a large audience of men and women of all ages of all backgrounds watching a live event. This is why you can charge about $5 million for a 30-second ad, because everybody is watching — not just the game, but they watch the commercials.

The NFL continually finds ways to market this game as spectacle. It's beyond just a sporting event, and in some respects, some people come to watch it just because they want to watch the commercials, or gamble on it.

This is a very meaningful experience that may have a little bit to do with football, but a lot to do with America and its values and its culture, which revolve around consumerism.

How do you think this is going to fare in an age when people watch on their phones or iPads and really aren't so invested in seeing something live?

The live TV market is changing, obviously, and everything [about it] is down, and the NFL has to expect that. We’ve seen a rise in interest in fantasy sports. Pro football is another one of those sports that mobile devices use for highlights and for stats and for information.

A whole new generation of young people is getting interested in professional football — not so much through live television, but using mobile devices to follow their teams, whether live or with highlights or fantasy apps. That’s the future. The NFL is there.

The findings about brain damage and concussions — I think a lot of people may say to themselves, ‘Do I really want to watch guys doing this to each other?’

This is a serious problem for the NFL. More and more living players who are older and who had concussions are coming back and suing the NFL. This is not going to go away anytime soon. I think long term that's going to have a negative impact on the NFL, even more so than we've already seen.

I've asked my students a number of times in classes, 50 years from now, what will be the No. 1 American sport? Very few of them say professional football. They have an array of other sports they'll say, but for the reason that you mentioned, head trauma, not so much today, but the effect that can have over the course of the next 50 years, will slowly erode that very loyal and very loving fan base.

The worst thing for football is to take the tackling and the violence out of it because that's an allure for many people. But that's going to be necessary if they want to do something to prevent these injuries from affecting the lives of the players.

Parents — as many as 50% as I've seen in polls — are reluctant to let their kids start to play football for those very reasons.

Yeah, I won't let my sons play tackle football. If they want to play flag football, it's fine. They play baseball, they play soccer, they play basketball. They don't play football because I love them too much to have them go through what I've seen in the football players late in their career, late in their life, struggling just to put a sentence together.

Is there also a reluctance about watching millionaires playing for billionaires, as the phrase goes?

Back in the early years of pro football, even in the early 1970s, the average football player didn't make a lot. The average NFL salary in 1970 was $20,000 a year. By 2000, it was $1 million a year. And in 2011, the average salary was $2 million a year. It’s doubled, I'm sure, by now.

When you have labor issues, it would be tough to have the average American sympathize with the poor players who are only making millions.

One exception to the billionaire owners is the team that you and I love, the Green Bay Packers. It’s publicly owned. And the Packers have thrived for decades with this model.

The Packers were one of those small-town teams where the only way they could survive was by enlisting the local community — not just to go to games but to bail them out financially.

Back in the ’20s, this was not exceptional. A number of other teams did it, but the Packers and their fans were able to sustain it. In 1922, Curly Lambeau, the first coach and founder of the Green Bay Packers, owned the team for one season, but he was a 23-year-old man who had just gotten married who didn't have any deep pockets at all.

The team hit some rough times in the season, and he went bankrupt in order to save the franchise. Local leaders said, ‘We need to bail it out because we like the team so much.’

So they went around town and got people to pledge money to the team. In the 1930s, when they had a crisis, they did that. In 1949, they did that for another crisis. They had stock sales in the 1990s, and they had a stock sale in 2011, and my sons and I all purchased a share of stock.

This is a great model.

So you're an NFL owner.

I’m an NFL owner. I own one share of a million in the Green Bay Packers. The Packers’ stock, though, is nonprofit, it's non-dividend-earning voting stock. I don't get any tickets. I don't get any kickbacks. It’s basically giving money to this organization that's worth billions of dollars.

All the money that goes to the team will go back into the team, not to a yacht like [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones just purchased for himself. Any profit that the Packers earn will be put in the bank, or put toward community projects in Green Bay or the state of Wisconsin.

The NFL banned this type of ownership every place with the exception of Green Bay so nobody can do this again.

The Packers are not in the Super Bowl this year, so who are you cheering for?

I am going for the Rams. I think the Rams are a young, up-and-coming team. And I hope the Rams can win by a large margin, because I want to put the Patriots and that whole franchise and their long history to rest. I hope the Rams win 41 to 14 and really quiet Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

You and me both.

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