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For Championships and Ratings: The Rise of the NFL in the Television Era

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The National Football League, professional sports powerhouse, billion-dollar business, and American cultural phenomenon, traces its roots to humble origins. Founded in 1920 in Canton, Ohio, the league's early days were were marked by instability and turnover. A blue-collar league for a blue-collar sport, the NFL would see rapid expansion and contraction as haphazard franchises emerged and folded with regularity across the coal towns and industrial cities of the Midwest. Pro football was a hardscrabble, gritty game for the working class, much removed from the pageantry and tradition of the Ivy League and other prominent collegiate programs. Even greater than the college game, however, was professional baseball. America's pasttime was the colossus of sports in the first half of the 20th Century, dwarfing the NFL and all other sport leagues. Pro football, it seemed, was destined to be little more than a niche sport.

In the years after World War II, however, the status quo would begin to shift. The suburbanization of middle-class America in the postwar boom began a slow erosion of the fanbases of the urban, mostly Northeastern based baseball leagues. At the same time the rapid rise of home television ownership forever changed the entertainment and leisure time habits of millions of Americans. It is television, and the market for live, regional and national broadcasts of sporting events it created, that had the single greatest impact on the growth of the NFL from national afterthought to national sensation in the little more than twenty years from 1958-1980.

This archive will highlight the important people and events that helped create the highly succesful marriage of pro football and television through an examination of different historical documents across a variety of media.

First, the 1958 NFL Championship game, often referred to as the "The greatest game ever played" will be examined. This game, in which the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants, served as a sort of coming out party for the NFL, as the thrilling game introduced millions of potential new fans to professional football on national television for the first time.

Next, no man was more responsible for the symbiotic relationship of television and the NFL than Pete Rozelle. The quintessential ad man led the league as commissioner through its most dynamic and formative time of the modern era, negotiating anti-trust laws, network contracts, rival leagues, and work stoppages during his almost thirty year tenure which saw the NFL rise from sideshow to headliner in American sports.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the football hegemony staked out by Rozelle and the NFL came from the fledgling American Football League. The rival league, formed by scorned potential owners of NFL franchises, could not match the NFL's strength, but through some deep investors pockets and smart TV negotiating, the league grew into a credible alternative to the NFL, sparking bidding wars between the two leagues. in 1967 compromise was reached with the merging of the two leagues under the NFL brand and the creation of a joint championship, eventually dubbed the Super Bowl. 

It was TV money that had fueled the bidding wars between the AFL and NFL. In 1962, taking advantage of its newly bestowed anti-trust exemption, the NFL reached a two year deal with CBS for exclusive broadcast rights for $9 million. in 1964, two years later, CBS was forced to triple that bid to keep its coveted broadcast rights as the NFL surpassed bseball and became the preeminent sports business.This deal, and other important TV moments, is discussed in the fourth section The NFL: Coming to a Television Set Near You. 

With big money comes big spectacle. The first Super Bowl was played in 1967, three years later Monday Night Football, with its multitude of camera angles, personalities, and built-in narrative drama made its debut on ABC. These NFL events became more than just football games, they were mainstream entertainment, cultural holidays irrevocably linking America with the gridiron. 

The section titled Conclusion will help draw all these themes together and show how it was possible for the NFL to use TV to become the nation's most popular and powerful sports league. Finally, the last section Further Readings will give a list of secondary sources consulted in addition to the primary exhibit pieces placed throughout the pages of this archive. Each secondary source is annotated with a brief description of its main point and what was drawn from it for the creation of this exhibit. 

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