Enormous, well-padded warriors in helmets and vibrant, numbered jerseys, collide at high speeds on the gridiron. The sharp cracking sound of impact prompts a huge roar of approval from the large, boisterous crowd.
Millions of television viewers around the globe tune in for the games. The NFL broadcasts to more than 230 countries across six continents. Several games every season are played in or near London, England — this year at Wembley Stadium.
The noise from the impact and grunts from the players resonates across the field as rock music blasts and enormous flat screen monitors replay the action at both ends of a noisy stadium. The plays on the field are explosive, fierce and incredibly athletic – to the point where you sometimes can’t believe your eyes.
Coaches wearing headsets bark instructions, cameras wheel around, referees in black-and-white striped shirts hustle about, and rabid fans holler at the top of their lungs.
The venue is filled to capacity with about 90,000 screaming spectators clad in team garb, ball caps and jackets. Tastes run to extremes and everybody has an opinion, usually spoken loudly and with great authority – especially the shirtless guys painted in team colors from their waists to the top of their heads.
A pure American creation, professional football in the United States – as presented by the National Football League (NFL) – is a game of epic proportions. Compelling and exciting, the game is larger than life, in your face, over the top and wildly colorful. It is the king of the hill when it comes to sports in the U.S., and its appeal crosses many cultures.
The centerpiece is a ball made of pigskin with a pointed nose and circular white lines at either end, a wide middle, and five-inch laces running lengthwise down one side.
Heroes and zeroes. Winners and losers. The good, the bad, the ugly. Dudes with necks bigger than your thighs rule the landscape, commanding fame, fortune and often fleeting adulation. Professional football stars rival their Hollywood counterparts for attention and publicity. Highly lucrative product sponsorships and advertising campaigns go with the territory for the sport’s top performers.
But players are only as good as their last game. Another contender is always lurking. Kids start playing in organized leagues at about six-years-old, running up through high school football, which is big time, and on to college where it’s huge. The NFL draft of college players is a whole cottage industry unto itself.
For a decade, season ticket holder Scott Sizer has had a coveted pair of seats in the end zone at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, overlooking the Washington Redskins sideline.
“It’s awesome to be outside with friends, eat some good food and then have fun watching the game,” said Sizer. “I like our section [in the stadium] with a lot of other fans who have become friends. It’s just great to be with everyone and cheer for our team, even when they lose.”
All of the games are broadcast on network television. There are pre-game shows, post-game analysis programs and a 24-7 NFL network dedicated solely to the sport. Fans and advertisers can’t seem to get enough.
It’s a year-round enterprise, even though the season itself begins in August with pre-season games, rolls into the regular season, and concludes in early February with the Super Bowl (no explanation necessary).
The winner of this ultimate championship game is crowned world champion and awarded the coveted Lombardi trophy, named after legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who led his team to 13 championships.
In this day of giant, flat-screen, high-definition TVs, many aficionados find the viewing experience at home to be even better than watching the action live on the field. True fans might not agree, but it’s tough to beat the view you get on a TV set, with replays, announcers, analysis and the comfort of your own home.
Rules of the game
Rules of the game are elaborate and intricate. On a basic level, though, it boils down in a straightforward way.
It’s offense versus defense. There are eleven players from each team on the field at any given time. The team with the ball is on the offensive, and tries to move the ball down the field by running with it or throwing it. Points are scored when the offense crosses the goal line at the end of the field, an area called the end zone. When on defense, the opposing team attempts to prevent the offense from scoring.
Injuries are an unavoidable part of this exceptionally physical game. Every team has them, but too many, or a few key ones, can torpedo a team’s chances – unless it has depth, in the form of able backup players who can step up and fill the void.
Multiple players suffer injuries every week, and dozens of others get the “bumps and bruises” that are part of the game. The Injured Reserve list is watched closely by fans, gamblers and participants in so-called fantasy leagues.
Sure, it’s over the top, it’s also worth billions of dollars in television broadcasting rights, advertising revenue, merchandising partnerships, ticket sales, player endorsements, and stadium deals.
The NFL made $10.5 billion last year, according to various estimates, and that could be on the low side. Some reports say the league hopes revenue will hit $25 billion by 2027. Given the level of national interest, that doesn’t seem like a stretch.
Intrinsic rituals associated with the sport include tailgating, when fans arrive many hours before the game and begin the party early in the stadium parking lobby, eating and drinking copious amounts of food and drink.
The team’s flags are flying, grills are smoking, sandwiches are being scarfed down, and alcoholic liquid libations – especially beer – are consumed.
Fleets of enormous recreation vehicles, often embellished with the team colors and logo crowd the parking lot. They have large TV screens, radio broadcasts blaring and music.
Longtime Washington Redskins fans Amy Stevens and her husband, Greg, of Germantown, Maryland, sat behind their car with the back trunk open in the parking lot at Fedex Field on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon. They consumed sandwiches, chips, other munchies and cold beer.
With their young children at home with family, the games are a great escape.
“There’s a lot of energy, excitement and camaraderie,” said Greg. “There’s a real sense of community, and there’s always hope that they can win today. Football is such a tremendous sport and there often are surprises.”
Once the game begins, cheerleaders vamp, beer vendors hustle up and down the steep aisles hawking cold beers, peanuts and other refreshments at premium prices. Concession stands that ring the stadium’s promenade levels sell hot dogs, soda, pretzels, pizza, popcorn and more.
Games are an expensive proposition; tickets range from $80 each for the cheap seats to several hundred dollars for the good ones. Then there’s the additional cost of parking, food, drink and memorabilia.
By the numbers
Gambling is huge in football. Billions of dollars are wagered weekly on the games.
Betting is legal in Las Vegas, where the sharpies – computer-assisted number crunchers — pore through minutia to determine razor-sharp margins. Points are given to the underdogs to encourage maximum wagering.
In the informal football fantasy leagues across the county, participants create their own teams by drafting players from various real teams, who then take on other dream teams. The fantasy leagues are run by colleagues, friends and family members.
And while football is a uniquely American obsession at the moment, that might not be the case for much longer. The league has featured exhibition games in European cites for several years now, and there’s talk of expanding the league beyond U.S. shores.
A play like that could be a big score for the NFL, while lending even more substance to the title of “Super Bowl World Champions”.