The ‘manliest’ sports in the world – a breakdown of the history of the NFL

Said to be among the manliest sports in the world, there’s no doubt that NFL is a huge sport with an enormous following. But has it always been so popular? Let’s take a look at the history of the NFL.

The beginnings of the NFL

Believe it or not, before everyone was talking about NFL picks and the Superbowl, there were many failed attempts to establish a nationwide American Football league. 

The NFL was first established in 1920 under the name the American Professional Football Association, which was shortened to APFA. This league began with just ten teams from four American states. All of these teams were already a part of an existing regional league. 

After two years, the APFA changed its name to become the National Football League or NFL as we currently know it. Interestingly, only two of those ten founding teams are still a part of the NFL now. These are the Chicago Bears (which were the Decatur Staleys) and the Arizona Cardinals (which were the Chicago Cardinals). 

Growth of the league

The league began establishing itself throughout the 20s and 30s and became more formal as an organization. It was in 1933 when the first championship game took place. 

During the 1930s and 1940s, it was college football that was more popular but towards the end of the Second World War, professional football had begun to rival the college sides for attention. 


Though there had been non-white players in the APFA league, the NFL became segregated in the early 1930s and largely due to George Preston Marshall’s influence as the Boston Braves owner, there ended up being no black players between 1933 and 1945. 

Integration began happening again when the Cleveland Rams move into the Los Angeles Coliseum, who required their team to be integrated. This led to other teams following suit. 

Not the only league

The NFL hasn’t always been out there on its own. There were several attempts at rival leagues, including the American Football League – or AFL. This league was a formidable challenger for the NFL until the two agreed on a merger in 1966. 

Merging with the AFL

By the mid-70s, the merger was fully established. Though the newly merged league took on the name NFL, they did adopt some of the AFL’s innovations. This included the names on jerseys, the game clock on the field, taking recruits from small (and largely black) colleges, sharing television and gate revenue, and establishing additional wide-open offensive rules. 

NFL modern era

In the 70s and 80s, the NFL clearly became the most popular spectator sport in the United States, and it positioned itself strongly in American culture. The Super Bowl effectively became a national holiday at this point and was the most-watched program on TV for most years running. 

In 1970, the introduction of Monday Night Football meant higher ratings and mixed the sport with entertainment for the first time. Rule changes in this decade also meant the game became more fast-paced, which attracted more casual fans.

Another challenger

During the early 80s, the creation of United States Football League brought about another challenge for the NFL. This competitor had big names, a national TV contract and was well-financed. However, overspending and deciding to go head-to-head with fall competitions meant it didn’t survive. 

Players go on strike in 1987

In 1987, NFL players went on strike demanding the right to seek free agency and better pay. Whilst this was going on, team owners tried to find replacements. They took people from semi-pro leagues as well as those from regular jobs like schoolteachers and truck drivers to build a makeshift team. For those three weeks, regular people of America put on NFL jerseys and helmets and lived their dreams. Of course, there were heckles and problems with food being thrown at them but unlike those they temporarily replaced, they were more than happy to play.

Going international

More recently, the NFL has ventured outside of the U.S. This began with the American Bowl, which included pre-season games outside the U.S. Then there was NFL Europa which had teams in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Great Britain. However, this was shut down in 2007.


Nowadays, the NFL is stronger than ever and it’s safe to say that people (especially men) like football a lot. The minimum annual salary of an NFL player is $660,000 and the highest-paid player is Patrick Mahomes, who has a $49.1 million salary with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The average franchise value is a staggering $3.48 billion, according to Statista