Figuring Out The NFL's Oldest Franchises Is As Clear As The Definition Of A Catch

Football — and here we're discussing "gridiron football" as opposed to "association football" (soccer) — is, by far, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, professional sports in the United States. As Statista reports, in 2021, the National Football League generated $17.19 billion in revenue and, per Sports Business Journal, brought in around 18 million people in total attendance.

The NFL, as we know it, started on September 17, 1920, when a handful of team owners met in downtown Canton, Ohio, to form a professional league (via History). That, however, is the beginning and the end of what is clear about this phase of professional football history. Trying to parse out what the "original" teams were and which one was the "first" is going to be difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because some of those terms are open to interpretation. Further, players were taking money two decades before anyone decided to form a professional league, muddling the picture even further.

The Club Origins Of Professional Football

Professional football, not unlike professional baseball and professional association football, began in amateur clubs. Much like your local chess club or quilting club, sporting clubs were a thing in the late 1800s, and people who had leisure time could blow off some steam by going to the club and playing a sport — in this case, gridiron football. Eventually, spectators started showing up, and the idea of charging them to watch and of paying the players to play became a thing, and soon enough, the process went from amateur to professional.

According to History, in the 1890s, club football in Pennsylvania was particularly intense, and in 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Association hired former Yale football star William "Pudge" Heffelfinger to play in a game against their rivals, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Heffelfinger was paid $500 — a princely sum in those days. In 1893, Pittsburgh signed one of its players to a contract that covered the whole season. Then in 1896, Allegheny paid its entire team, but the season was abbreviated to two games. Even later, in 1897, the Latrobe Athletic Association fielded a team that consisted entirely of players who were getting paid. So, by this definition, perhaps the Latrobe Athletic Association was the first professional football team in the U.S.?

What's This Got To Do With The NFL?

So, depending on how you define "first" and "professional" and "team," the first professional football team in the U.S. played in either Pittsburgh, Allegheny, or Latrobe. But you may have noticed two problems with this: First, of those three cities, only Pittsburgh still fields a professional football team. And second, the checks that paid the players in those cities were cashed two decades before the National Football League became a thing.

By 1920, professional football in the U.S. was at once chaotic and in danger of imploding under its own largess (via History). Most of the teams were based in Northeastern and Midwestern industrial cities, as opposed to college football, which was everywhere. Speaking of college football, the amateur game was, at the time, considerably bigger than the pro game, and professional teams played in the shadow of their collegiate peers. And, as regards the pro game, there was no management of any part of it. Teams poached players from each other, often risking going bankrupt to meet their payroll. There was no oversight of scheduling, and the professional game, as a unit, didn't have a public-facing entity to represent it.

Canton, Ohio businessman Ralph Hay set out to change that.

The NFL Is Created (Kind Of)

On August 20, 1920, a meeting was held at Canton, Ohio dealer Ralph Hay's showroom, and the American Professional Football Conference was formed (via the Pro Football Hall of Fame). The organization's goals were to coalesce the various different professional football clubs into one league, invoke rules to prevent bidding on players, manage scheduling, and give the organization a public face, among other things.

A second meeting took place on September 17, 1920, according to History. When all was said and done, a number of teams had signed the original charter, while others would join a short time later, bringing the "original" total to 14 teams. Because the Akron Pros were first alphabetically, by this interpretation, they were the first team in what would become the NFL. Of those 14 teams, some wouldn't even last the inaugural season, according to Sportscasting. Eventually, the American Professional Football Conference became the National Football League.

The NFL Is Created (For Real This Time)

For about a decade, professional football in the United States was played under the auspices of the American Professional Football Conference. However, in 1922, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the league underwent a rebranding of sorts and was renamed the National Football League.

League lore has it that the organization started with eight original teams: the Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Boston Braves, Portsmouth Spartans, Staten Island Stapletons, and Brooklyn Dodgers. Of those original eight teams, there's been quite a bit of shifting about. The Bears, for example, actually started out as the Decatur Staleys before moving permanently to the Windy City, while the Cardinals eventually made it to St. Louis and then to Arizona. Boston's franchise is now the Washington Commanders, and Portsmouth's team is now the Detroit Lions. Only the Green Bay Packers are in the same city with the same name that they've had since the beginning.

Needless to say, by this interpretation, there is no "first" team, as all eight were effectively brought in at once. If you want to reach back to the 1920 system of identifying the first (viz, alphabetically), then that honor would go to Boston, but by this point, it's all moot.

But that's still not the end of it

According to Sportscasting, the National Football League as we know it really came to be in 1932,  although by that time, teams had been playing professionally, both officially and unofficially, for half a century. However, the organization now known as the National Football League, which still includes three of the original eight teams (viz, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, and Green Bay Packers), isn't the same organization as it was in 1932.

As History reports, by 1958, professional football had become huge in the United States, and businesspeople in various cities across the country were keen to field a team and have it be invited to the league. However, the league steadfastly refused to add new teams, so a businessman created a rival league, the American Football League (AFL). The two leagues existed separately for a few years, but in 1966, the two "merged" unofficially for the first Super Bowl. However, the AFL didn't fully integrate its operations into the NFL (with the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference) until 1970.

By this time, people had been getting paid to play football for nearly a century. What's more, many of the cities that initially fielded teams were now filled with spectators of other teams, their own having gone belly-up. Professional football had gone through its growing pains, but modern players can look to the players in Latrobe, Allegheny, and Pittsburgh who paved the way for pro football as a career choice.