History of NFL Expansion

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Born in a car dealership showroom in Canton, Ohio, the National Football League has come a long way since 1920. Once a distant second in popularity behind the college game, professional football was slow out of the gate, confined largely to industrial towns of the Midwest. Known originally as the American Professional Football Association, the NFL adopted its current name in 1922. Since then, franchises have come and gone, pro football has become big business and the league has more than doubled in size.

The Early Years

  • Only two of the original 14 NFL members remain. The Racine Cardinals, named after Racine Avenue in their Chicago hometown, now compete out of Arizona, and the Decatur Staleys, who relocated to Chicago, changed their name to the Bears. The breakthrough year for the league came in 1925, when Red Grange signed with the Bears and five teams, including the New York Giants, joined the league. The largest crowd to watch a pro football game was 36,000 that year, still far behind the 100,000 that college games could draw.

Moving Toward the Mainstream

  • By 1926, the NFL had grown to 22 teams, but many of these stood on weak financial ground. Ten teams were dropped for the 1927 season as a way to improve the financial health of the league as well as the quality of the game. While 1930 saw the NFL starting to receive coverage in the mainstream press and general acceptance as a pro league, by 1932, the league dropped to its lowest membership, with only eight teams competing.

Television and Stability

  • Each year, teams were added, suspended, merged or migrated. The first televised game came in 1939, but it wasn't until 1950 that the Los Angeles Rams became the first team to have all its games broadcast. Becoming a 10-team league in 1937, the NFL expanded to 13 in 1950 before leveling off at 12 for the remainder of the decade. The rival American Football League fielded an eight-team roster beginning in 1960.

Toward the Modern Day

  • The upstart AFL and the 14-team NFL coexisted during the 1960s, competing against each other in the first Super Bowl in the 1966 season. The leagues joined in 1970, creating a 26-team league under the NFL banner. Tampa Bay and Seattle joined in 1976, while Jacksonville and Carolina were added in 1995. The restoration of a team in Cleveland in 1999 resulted in an unbalanced, 31-team configuration until the eight-division, 32-team league emerged in 2002, with the addition of a new franchise in Houston.

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