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Ten reasons the NFL has become so popular

Dec. 28 is the 50th anniversary of the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. It has the tag of "Greatest Game Ever Played'' because of the influence it had on the NFL's popularity. But that game alone did not make pro football what it is today. Today we look at 10 watershed building blocks in NFL history.

Greatest Game Ever Played

Until 1958, the NFL was not even as big as college football, and it certainly was miles behind baseball and boxing in the national consciousness. That changed with the 1958 title game at Yankee Stadium between the Giants and Colts. Two things happened. The game was a classic, the first playoff overtime game, with the Colts winning 23-17. More significantly, NBC televised it nationally. The popularity of the NFL soared immediately afterward, and eventually the NFL surpassed baseball and every other sport to become America's true favorite pastime.

The Super Bowl

The first Super Bowl in 1967 wasn't even called the Super Bowl. It was the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. It pitted the winner of the American Football League against the winner of the National Football League. It was a humble beginning. The game wasn't a sellout, with tickets priced at $6-$12. It was broadcast on NBC and CBS, although blacked out in Los Angeles. But this was merely the opening note of a smash hit song. Super Bowl Sunday has evolved into a pseudo-national holiday with viewing audiences topping 97-million in this country alone.

Super Bowl III

When you talk critical dates in NFL history, Jan. 12, 1969, needs to be high on the list. That's the day Joe Namath's New York Jets of the old AFL upset the mighty Baltimore Colts of the NFL. This was the first AFL-NFL championship that was referred to as the Super Bowl, the name coming from Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt after watching his young daughter play with a Super Ball. The Jets' upset proved the AFL could play with the NFL and was the final push in the merger between the leagues in 1970.

Hiring of Pete Rozelle

In 1960, NFL owners needed 23 ballots, but they got it right when they hired 33-year-old public relations specialist and L.A. Rams general manager Pete Rozelle as commissioner. Over his 30-year reign, Rozelle took the game to levels no one could have imagined and became the greatest commissioner in the history of sports. He was the mastermind behind the Super Bowl, through-the-roof television contracts, expansion, the salary cap, revenue sharing, drug testing, major rule changes that opened up the passing game and just about every big event that has made the game what it is today.

The USFL

The United States Football League lasted only three seasons, but like the World Football League of the 1970s, its presence did cause concern and problems for the NFL. The NFL lost many star players to the rival league, including Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Doug Williams, Steve Young and Reggie White. And the NFL ended up adopting many of the ideas used in the USFL, such as the two-point conversion. It's also interesting to note that the NFL eventually moved to cities where the USFL was successful: Jacksonville, Phoenix and Nashville.

Madden video games

For many fans, the only thing better than watching football is playing it. For most, playing comes in the form of a video game. Madden NFL is arguably the greatest sports video game designed. It debuted in 1988, and after EA Sports continued to tinker, it eventually became a bestseller. It remains one of the premier video games and the only pro football game officially licensed by the NFL and the players association. And who benefits? The NFL, not only in a cut of the insane money it generates, but in the buzz it creates for its sport. Kids become fans because they learn the teams and the players. When a controller is in their hands, they are the teams and the players … and usually lifelong fans.

Wagering and fantasy leagues

Many who follow the sport aren't in it for the entertainment, but for profit. No other American sport lends itself to gambling more than the NFL, and regardless of what the league says, it's the point of releasing injury reports each week. Meantime, fantasy leagues date to the early 1960s, but they exploded in the 1980s. As a team "owner,'' fans no longer follow their favorite team, but all games because their real players play for several teams.

Monday Night Football

Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned a nationally televised prime-time game way back in the 1960s. But it wasn't until 1970 that Monday Night Football hit the air. ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge brilliantly treated it as an event that fans could not miss, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill game. He brought in twice the number of cameras, expanded the graphics, and gave it a catchy theme song and an eye-catching opening. This was a show. Then Arledge hired controversial Howard Cosell as an analyst. The result was a phenomenon that has had as much impact on the NFL's popularity as anything.

Pete Gogolak kicks a field goal

What's so big about converting a field goal, particularly a 57-yarder (the longest ever at the time) by a Bills rookie in an AFL preseason game at Phillips Field in Tampa on Aug. 8, 1964? It was the first by a soccer-style kicker in pro football. Straight-ahead kickers did hang on two more decades, with Steve Cox converting the last such kick for Washington in 1987. Field goals beyond 50 yards are now common in the NFL (61 have been kicked this season), changing the way the game is played.

NFL Films

This company — founded by Ed Sabol in 1962 and run today by his son Steve — doesn't just create game highlights. In the early days, with the poetic narration of baritone John Facenda ("The Voice of God'') and the inspiring symphonic music of Sam Spence, highlights became operas, epic films, dramas with villains, heroes and victims of tragic circumstances. Shot on film with dozens of cameras and onfield microphones, and using slow motion, NFL Films has helped turned a sport into theater.

Ten reasons the NFL has become so popular 12/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:15am]

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