Today, the NFL is the world’s most popular sports league, a towering, distinctly American colossus spewing out $10 billion in annual revenues. Given its current dominance, most fans could never imagine professional football’s dismal early years, or how five men of varied backgrounds and talents managed to keep the sport alive. The rise of the NFL is one of the most improbable tales in sports, and in The League, John Eisenberg gives us this story in all of its drama and color.
Rooney, Halas, Mara, Marshall, and Bell-their names are enshrined in Canton and in the minds of fans across the country. When they started out, however, they were gamblers, bookies, and prodigal sons. And when they came together in the 1920s to create a new league, they faced the kind of long odds only a horseplayer could love. At the time, America’s sports fans cared more about baseball, college football, horse racing, and boxing. Pro football was widely ignored, even mocked as only slightly more serious than the circus. The Great Depression and rival leagues almost put the fledgling enterprise out of business. Through it all, Rooney and company expanded, devising new ways of bringing fans to the sport as well as new tactics on the field. Finally, in the 1950s, with the advent of TV and the creation of the wildly entertaining spread attack, the game truly arrived.
Taking us from the smoke-filled rooms where the founders plotted their rise to the dirt fields on which their game first flourished, Eisenberg shows that the league survived only because each man brought to it a particular skill. Marshall had a nose for business, Halas the innovative football mind, Rooney the gambler’s eye for the main chance, Mara the chutzpah, and Bell the managerial talent. Together they did it all-finding the stadiums and the crowds to fill them, coaching the teams (and even taking the field in a pinch), marketing their product, even while squabbling among themselves, over matters of profit and prestige. At once a history of a sport and a great American success story, The League is an absolute must-read for any fan of the true national pastime.