Last Sunday, the New England-Pittsburgh game on CBS averaged 24.6 million viewers, making it the most watched regular season NFL telecast this year. That is just an appetizer compared to the ratings for the upcoming playoffs and Super Bowl.
When you see those numbers, it seems crazy to think that the most popular sport in the United States almost didn't make it out of the starting gate during its early days.
John Eisenberg tells the story of a time when the NFL actually was an underdog -- yes, underdog -- fighting for survival in his new book, The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire (Basic Books, $30).
Eisenberg, who writes columns for Baltimoreravens.com, focuses his book on five key early owners: Chicago's George Halas, Philadelphia's Bert Bell, Pittsburgh's Art Rooney, Washington's George Preston Marshall, and the New York Giants' Tim Mara. He documents how these men tried to launch the NFL during the worst possible economic circumstances in the 1920s through World War II.
"It's so different than what we know of the NFL today," Eisenberg said. "The stock market crash nearly put them out of business. The Great Depression nearly put them out of the business. World War II nearly put them out of business. There were small crowds and not that much money involved. When you look at the early days, you can't believe this was the NFL."
The NFL founders also faced another huge obstacle. The prevailing sentiment was that football should be a college game.
"Back then, football was seen as something of a character-building experience for young boys," Eisenberg said. "The notion of professional players was abhorrent. Why would you watch grown men play football? I found the fact the NFL had to deal with that astounding."
The five key founders also were an unlikely cast of characters. Of the five, only Bell came from a wealthy family. Eisenberg said they were figures straight out of the "Damon Runyan" era, as the men often could be found at saloons and race tracks.
Yet Eisenberg said they all brought unique elements to the table.
"Halas was the football guy," Eisenberg said. "Marshall, coming from the theater, was the entertainment guy. He understood what was needed to make the game more exciting. Rooney was the peacemaker. He made sure everyone got along. Bert Bell, he was the instinctive guy. He understood what was needed to make the sport click."
Indeed, Bell, who would go on to become the NFL's first commissioner, came up with the idea that the league should hold a draft of college players. Eisenberg calls the first draft in 1936 "a seminal moment" in NFL history.
It showed how wealthy owners such as Halas and Mara, who had the resources to corral the best players, put their best interests aside for the "greater good" of the entire league. Eisenberg includes a story on how Wellington Mara, Tim's brother, did extensive scouting prior to the 1938 draft.
"That was the first time someone did that for a draft," Eisenberg said. "Tim told Wellington, 'You've got to share that information with everybody. Teams need to know who are the good players.'"
It all was part of the unprecedented cooperation between these "rivals." They knew the NFL needed to be strong as a whole entity. The league probably doesn't survive without it. Eisenberg said it was "a great honor" to interview Halas' daughter, 95-year old Virginia McCaskey, for the book. She remembers her mother asking Halas why decisions were being made that could hurt the Bears?
"His response was, 'What happens on the field was different from the business of the league,'" McCaskey said.
"Halas understood that he wouldn't have a successful team unless he put the interests of the league first," Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg details the NFL's long trek to finally establishing a foothold, as the famous 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and Giants thrust the game squarely into the public spotlight. The NFL went on to soar in popularity during the 1960s and beyond. Eisenberg, though, contends the league's success always will have its foundation in those five "rivals."
"The larger theme here is that this is the story of 20th Century America," Eisenberg said. "They were the sons of immigrants. They weren't the titans of business like you see with NFL owners today.
"All they had was an idea, a vision. It was no different than Henry Ford and his idea for the car. They had an idea for professional football that they thought would work well. It's quite a tale of perseverance."