Episode #86 guest John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) returns, this time to guide us through the fascinating formative years of the National Football League – and the five now-legendary figures responsible for nurturing its development through tumultuous times and an often-uncertain future into what is now America’s most popular sport.
In his new book The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire, Eisenberg highlights the individual dedication and collective conviction of Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Chicago’s George Halas, New York’s Tim Mara, Washington’s George Preston Marshall, and Philadelphia’s Bert Bell to risk everything in building and growing the game of professional football.
Originally formed (as the “American Professional Football Association”) at a time (1920) when the sport barely registered on the national scene (baseball, boxing, horse racing, and even the college version of the game all rated higher in fan appeal) – the circuit (renamed the National Football League two seasons later) injected structure and integrity into the sport, on the shared belief that a viable professional business was both possible and inevitable.
Fending off existential threats from a constant stream of challengers – including the better-funded All-American Football Conference (AAFC) of the late 1940s and American Football League (AFL) of the early 1960s – the five owners ultimately succeeded by repeatedly sacrificing short-term success of their respective teams for the longer-term good of the NFL as a whole.
The story of the NFL’s rise to the top of America’s pro sports landscape is one of not only historical significance but also of methodical – and sometimes, just plain lucky – business ingenuity.