Have you ever wondered why the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio?
That’s because ninety years ago tomorrow, seven men got together in a car dealership in Canton to form the forerunner of what became the National Football League (NFL).
Football was primarily played on college campuses until teams with paid players began forming around Eastern mining camps in the 1890s. On August 20, 1920, representatives from four Ohio teams formed the new American Professional Football Association in Ralph Hay’s car dealership in Canton. Hay owned the Canton Bulldogs, which was the premier team for the new league and its best player was legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe.
A few weeks later, teams from three other states joined the new league and Thorpe was voted its first president. On September 26th of that same year, 800 fans watched a team from the new league play a game in Rock Island, Illinois.
The league quickly expanded to 22 teams by the next season, including a franchise awarded to the owner of the Acme Packing Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin. A year later the league changed its name to the National Football League and by 1933 it hosted its first championship game. The Super Bowl began in 1967 as a championship between the NFL’s best team and the champs from the upstart American Football League (AFL), which was absorbed by the NFL in 1970. The NFL steadily grew in popularity to become the biggest sport in America by the 1980s.
That popularity was evident to me yesterday as I watched the Dallas Cowboys practice at their training camp in Oxnard, California. Oxnard, on California’s coast, is actually the Cowboys’ second training camp for 2010, having just completed their first in San Antonio. Their camp in California is a way for owner Jerry Jones to mine the NFL-starved L.A. basin for new Cowboy fans (Los Angeles hasn’t had an NFL franchise since 1995). It’s a testament to the drawing power of today’s NFL that a team 1500 miles from its home can pull in far more fans to a scrimmage than attended that first game in Rock Island in 1920.
The seven men who met in that car dealership ninety years ago had no idea the size of the sporting beast they were unleashing on the American landscape.
The Cowboys, as arguably the most popular NFL franchise, are a prime example of that phenomenon. Last year they moved into a shiny new stadium that cost $1.3 billion. It could easily seat every one of Canton’s 78,319 citizens, with standing room for another 30,000 of their closest friends.