Although American football (the term "football" in this article will mean American football unless otherwise noted) is played throughout the world, it is still mostly seen as "America's sport" and is the most popular sport in the United States. By far the best talent plays in the United States' National Football League (NFL), so football enthusiasts worldwide will most likely have to travel to the USA to see their idols play live, even with the occasional NFL or college football match held outside of North America. Additionally, in many areas of the country (especially those that lack top-level pro teams), there is a huge following for collegiate and even high school football—millions of adults and youth play the game so no matter where you are in North America, you aren't far from football for several months out of the year.
For the purposes of this article the Canadian variety of the game—mostly played in the Canadian Football League (CFL)—will be considered the same sport, even though the differences in rules and gameplay are more than trivial.
Football finds its origins in rugby, which bears some general similarities to gridiron-style football. (Association football—or "soccer"—also split from rugby around the same time, albeit in a very different direction.) The first football games were played by the colleges of the Northeastern United States, with the first recognized football game taking place in 1869, soon followed by the establishment of a standard set of rules and intercollegiate play. The game closely resembled rugby, but as it evolved through the 1870s and 80s football began to break from its rugby roots, particularly with the innovation of the "line of scrimmage" and the "snap" (passing the ball backwards at the start of play). Walter Camp, then-captain of Yale's football team and now considered the "Father of American Football", was instrumental in securing rule changes that effectively created the modern sport of football.
Further innovations followed in the early decades of the 20th century, such as the establishment of the forward pass and the current point system and field dimensions. During this time, the collegiate leagues established a governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the tradition of annual postseason bowl games. The era also saw the rise of professional football, with the 1920 creation of the National Football League, which quickly established itself as the premier professional league, but nonetheless had to fight off rival claimants to major league status during almost all of its first five decades of existence. Eventually, the NFL would come to surpass the collegiate leagues in popularity, and by the late 1960s football was the most popular sport in the United States. 1960 saw the establishment of the American Football League, a rival professional league which soon proved fierce competition for playing talent with the NFL, though the rivalry quickly came to an end when the two leagues agreed to a merger in 1966, which instituted a championship game to be played between the champions of each league: the Super Bowl. The AFL–NFL rivalry arguably helped football surpass baseball in popularity and grow as a sport as the game went from 12 teams in 1959, only two of which played south of Washington, D.C. or west of Chicago (both in California), to 26 in 1970 upon completion of the merger. Both game attendance and TV ratings also grew very fast during that period of time.
Today, the NFL and the NCAA remain far and away the most popular football leagues in the world, with both having made attempts since the 1990s to promote football abroad, the most notable of which is the yearly NFL international series in London. The Super Bowl is the single most important game on the American sporting calendar, and perennially one of the most-watched television events every year, with hundreds of millions tuning in from around the world for the only football game they will watch until the following February.
Due to a number of rules that ensure competitiveness, such as the draft, the salary cap, or revenue sharing for TV revenue, the NFL is one of the most balanced professional sports leagues in the world and many teams have gone from championship contender to the bottom of their division or the other way round in just a few years. This makes "dynasties" of teams appearing in and winning multiple Super Bowls in a short span of time all the more impressive, as unlike in other sports, simply outspending opponents to get the best players is not a feasible tactic.
The following is a brief overview of the basics of American football, as played in the NFL (there are some small differences in the NCAA or high school matches):
Football is played by two teams of 11 players on the field who face off trying to advance an elongated ellipsoid ball (often described as looking like an egg) towards the end zone and its tall yellow goalpost, where points can be scored. The offense has four opportunities (called downs) to advance the ball 10 yards (9.1 metres). Each new down begins where the preceding down ended (i.e. where the ball carrying player was "marked down" or—in the case of an incomplete pass—at the previous spot). If the 10 yards have been achieved, a new set of four downs starts. If a net distance of 10 yards has not been achieved after four downs, the offense must turn the ball over to the other team. Oftentimes, a down is synonymous with a play but if a penalty is called on the defensive, the offensive may be given extra opportunities or even an all-new first down to start over after a particularly egregious defensive infraction.
In very few cases will the offense risk turning the ball over on downs when they are in a disadvantageous field position; instead, they almost always elect to punt on fourth down. Punting means kicking the ball away out of the hand towards the opposing team (much like a goalkeeper does in soccer). However, if the field position is good enough (usually within 35 yards of the end zone) a field goal will be attempted (see below). In rare cases, including cases where the offensive team is trailing by more than three points or only needs a couple yards to gain, the team may try to "go for it", i.e. convert the first down.
Each play starts with a snap, in which the ball is passed backwards to the quarterback, away from the line of scrimmage. The ball may then be advanced through passing with one forward pass (subject to some other preconditions as well) and unlimited backward passes (which are rarely used) permitted per play. Passing is almost exclusively the domain of the quarterback, who is usually the best paid and most prestigious player on the field. He is the de facto team captain and guides the other offensive players. If a forward pass is not caught before it hits the ground, the referee signals an incomplete pass, the play ends ("is blown dead") and the next play begins at the spot where the previous one started. The ball may also be advanced by running (carrying it forward) which is usually done by a running back. The other positions on the offense are the wide receivers, who catch forward passes; the offensive linemen, who try to clear a space for the running back to run through and are also responsible for protecting the quarterback; and the tight end (not always present), a larger receiver who may be called on to either catch passes or block, depending on the play call.
The defense tries to stop the offense's advance by tackling the player that carries the ball. There are three basic defensive positions. The defensive linemen try to prevent the offense from pushing the defense back and will try to reach the quarterback on passing plays. Linebackers, who play behind the defensive linemen, have perhaps the broadest role. Depending on what the offense does, they may rush the passer, cover a running back or tight end on a pass pattern, or try to chase down a running back. Defensive backs, divided into cornerbacks who play at the edges of the defense and safeties who play in the middle of the field, are usually assigned to a specific receiver or area and try to prevent the receivers from catching the ball or catch it themselves. If they catch it themselves, it is called an interception and possession of the football changes to the other team. If a player who had control of the ball drops the ball, or a backwards pass or snap is not caught, it is called a fumble. When the ball is fumbled, any player of either team may take the ball and advance it (for an exception to that rule, found only in the NFL, see Wikipedia's article on the "Holy Roller" play). Lost fumbles and interceptions are collectively referred to as turnovers, and one of the most important aspects in winning the game is to turn the ball over less than the opponent does. Typically a team that turns the ball over three or more times loses the game.
Scoring is done through one of three means. The most common and coveted is a touchdown: when a player enters the opponent's end zone with the ball, or catches the ball inside the opponent's end zone. Unlike in rugby, and despite its name, touching the ball to the ground is not required. A touchdown is worth six points, and further points may be earned by either a two-point conversion (another touchdown from the two-yard line) or a single point by touchdown kick (which is similar to a field goal). As the touchdown kick is by far the preferred option and has a success rate well over 90% (in the NFL at least; in youth and amateur leagues that rate may be considerably lower), touchdowns are often perceived to be worth seven points. Field goals are scored by kicking the ball through the yellow goalpost from a place kick, and are worth three points. A very rare drop kick can also be attempted instead of the place kick when attempting a field goal or one-point conversion, whereby the ball is dropped and immediately kicked through the goalposts on hitting the ground—only one has been successfully converted in NFL football since 1941. Least commonly, the defense can score a two-point safety if the opposing offense is brought down within their own end zone. Even more uncommon is a different type of two-point safety (also called a defensive conversion), scored if the defense forces a turnover (blocked kick, interception, fumble) on a conversion attempt and returns the ball to the opponent's end zone.
Fouls, or penalties, are signaled through yellow flags (orange in Canada) which are thrown onto the field by an official. Enforcing the penalty involves placing the ball some distance forward or back, to the detriment of the offending side. Common penalties include unnecessary roughness, any type of illegal motion prior to the snap (such as a false start or crossing the line of scrimmage) and holding (grabbing a player who doesn't have the ball).
Each game lasts for four quarters of 15 minutes each, although each team is allowed a limited number of timeouts to briefly stop the clock. As the clock stops or keeps running depending on what happened in the previous play, "clock management" is one of the most crucial and complicated aspects of tactics at the highest level, particularly in the last few minutes of a half. After the first two quarters, an extended break called half-time occurs where the two teams return to their locker rooms to recover. During this intermission, entertainment is provided for the fans, such as a cheerleading or a marching band performance, or a pop music concert in the case of major events. When the teams return from the break, the end zones are swapped for the second half of the game. During the regular season, if the scores are tied at the end of the fourth quarter, the game goes into a 10-minute overtime period, where the first team to score wins the game. If neither team manages to score by the end of overtime, the game ends in a tie. During the playoffs, each overtime period lasts for 15 minutes, and play continues even after a team has scored, and the team with more points at the end of overtime wins. If the scores are tied at the end of overtime, the game continues into as many overtime periods as necessary until a winner is determined.
As American football allows an unlimited number of substitutions, players tend to specialize in either offense or defense, and the entire team is usually substituted whenever there is a stoppage during or after a turnover. This means that touchdowns by defensive players are a rare event, and typically only occur if a pass by the offensive team is intercepted, or if a fumble by the offensive team is recovered by the defensive team in a good position. While even the NFL has a few players that play "both ways" (J. J. Watt is a commonly cited example), this is more common in youth or developmental leagues or outside North America, as some players so far outrank others in talent that the additional strain and less rest is not a deciding factor. It is more common for an otherwise defensive or offensive player to play on special teams, often in a role broadly similar to his role on scrimmage downs.
Going to a game
If you're a football fan and like to travel, it's very easy to combine the two. You can plan your trips about when and where your team is playing. There is nothing as exciting as watching your team on the road.
Getting tickets to a football game is no different than other spectator sports. NFL ticket prices range from around $40 in the upper decks to thousands of dollars for up-close seats on the sidelines. Major college football prices are comparable, and sometimes even more. There are usually a lot of tickets from season ticket holders available through re-sellers; these are a good way to get a better seat for a nicer price.
NFL teams play one game a week; most are on Sundays, with one marquee match-up on Monday night and one or two on the prior Thursday evening. Sunday afternoons see sports bars filled as the NFL plays more than half a dozen games that all start at 1PM Eastern Time (another smaller set starts at 4:30PM ET, and the weekend's marquee game kicks off around 8:20 ET). The football season is significantly shorter than most other sports due to the high-impact play, so each team only has 17 games—with each team having eight and nine home games in alternating seasons—along with one bye week somewhere in the middle of the season to give the players a rest.
College football has claimed Saturdays as its domain, which is why the NFL avoids that day of the week until after the college season ends, with the earliest games starting around noon and continuing throughout the day. At the high school level, Friday night is football night in most areas of the country.
Because of how the clock stops between many plays, football games are very long. In NFL, the average game lasts about 3¼ hours, and college games are even longer averaging closer to 3½ hours. Those are averages, which means some games last longer; a particularly long game can stretch to almost 4 hours, even without overtime. (High school football is shorter and faster, usually around 2–2¼ hours.) Once you add time to get to your seats before the game, then get out of the stadium and back home after the game, expect to set aside no less than 5–6 hours to attend an NFL or college game, and longer if you're tailgating (see below).
Nowadays, you should expect to go through a quick security screening before entering the stadium. You'll have to empty your pockets and pass through a metal detector. The NFL has restrictions on what you can bring in: except for small clutch bags, only specific clear bags are allowed, and all bags are checked. At most stadiums you can't bring in alcohol, drinks, or food, because stadiums make a lot of money on concession sales. Water is generally allowed, but may have to be in a factory-sealed bottle. College football games are also beginning to implement clear-bag restrictions similar to the ones imposed by the NFL, and most other limitations still apply. High school football games are generally unrestricted, or might have a cursory security screening. (Alcohol cannot be brought in and is not sold at high school and some college games, because so many attendees are underage.) These events will also offer some memorabilia and concessions as well but at a much lower price than the pros. Whatever game you go to, check the stadium's and team's rules before packing your bag; if you can bring in food and drinks, this is a good way to save money.
As mentioned above, there is some pageantry and spectacle around games. The half-time show can be flashy and feature famous musicians but even a smaller game will have elaborate choreography and musical performances from marching bands. Cheerleaders are athletes in their own right with dance moves, acrobatics, and songs to charm the crowd. More prominent games may even be accompanied by fireworks, air shows, the presentation of trophies, and other accompanying events.
Tailgating is a social event that's strongly associated with football games. A tailgate party usually means grilling some food, drinking beer, playing lawn games like catch or cornhole, and of course discussing the upcoming game and football in general. Some teams have now formalized this with "official" tailgating parties at least for important games. Tailgaters may either have a close group of friends who are sharing their food or they could open up their space to anyone who wanders by to talk football and eat snacks. Some will even act like unlicensed food vendors, selling bottled water or freshly-grilled food. For attendees like casual fans, the event is the tailgate and some may not even enter the stadium for the show if they are having a good time listening to music and playing games.
National Football League
The National Football League (NFL) is the premier football league in the world and has become synonymous with the sport in some areas and languages. Its regular season runs traditionally from the weekend after Labor Day (in September) to the weekend after Christmas, with the post-season playoffs occupying most of January and culminating in the Super Bowl on the second Sunday of February. The regular season lasts 18 weeks in total, with each team playing 17 games and getting one bye week, the shortest season of any major sports league in the USA. Most games are played on Sundays, with a small set of Monday night and Thursday night matches each week during the regular season. There is also a pre-season played for about a month prior to the official games starting. These games don't always feature the main stars of the NFL but are a much cheaper and less crowded alternative if you want to try out a pro football game. It's also an opportunity to see players who may never make the field or to see trick plays and experiments from squads who are testing out their strategies for the upcoming season.
The NFL consists of 32 teams in a "closed" system, which means that unlike most European sports leagues there is no promotion or relegation, but rather the same 32 teams playing in the same cities every season, unless a team is relocated, folds, or is added via expansion (none of which occur very often these days). What this means for the traveller is that, save for rare instances, if you want to watch NFL football you'll have to go to one of the cities listed below. Keep in mind that as the NFL is the most popular sports league in the world when measured in per game attendance, tickets will be expensive and hard to come by, especially for popular teams such as the Green Bay Packers.
The Pro Bowl, the NFL's version of an all-star game, is held the weekend before the Super Bowl but has often been regarded as an afterthought, because many players don't play their full game for fear of injuries. In addition, the NFL now does not allow players on Super Bowl teams to play in the Pro Bowl for the same reason. (Any player named to the Pro Bowl whose team makes the Super Bowl is replaced for the Pro Bowl, but is still considered a Pro Bowl selection because many player contracts contain bonuses for Pro Bowl selections.) However, both combine to make players a lot more relaxed and visibly enjoying themselves.
Some fans get a kick about attending every active stadium in the league. Every stadium is going to provide a unique football viewing experience. Below is a list of all NFL teams ordered by conference and division as of the upcoming 2023 season and their current home venues:
- Buffalo Bills, 1 Highmark Stadium, Orchard Park, New York – The Bills are noted for two things: one, undyingly loyal fans and two, their record run of four straight AFC Championships in the early 1990s (and the also-record four straight Super Bowl losses). A horrifying playoff drought of 17 seasons finally ended in 2017 when they earned a postseason berth by the skin of their teeth. (Their first post-drought playoff win, however, wouldn't happen until January 2021.) The Bills' stadium can get bitterly cold and covered in snow during winter months, but the tailgating atmosphere is second to none. Ground has been broken for a new open-air stadium across the street, with completion planned for 2026.
- Miami Dolphins, 2 Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida – Once a prolific team, having made it to the Super Bowl several times, they have entered a slump since the 1990s and usually play second fiddle in their division to the dominant Patriots, and are sometimes even surpassed by the Jets or the Bills. They are to date the only NFL team ever to achieve a "perfect season" while playing in the NFL in the 1972 season, which they culminated with a win in Super Bowl VII.
- New England Patriots, 3 Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts – The most successful NFL team of the 21st century (after decades of irrelevance), the Patriots have enjoyed an unprecedented level of success under quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, making regular Super Bowl appearances and winning six before Brady left for Tampa Bay. Their success has earned them both a widespread fan base and many detractors willing to root for practically any team as long as it plays the Patriots in an important game. A highlight of home games is the End Zone Militia, a group of men in Revolutionary War dress who fire a salute from the end zone when the Patriots score.
- New York Jets, 4 MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey – Despite playing in the New York City area, the Jets tend to take a backseat to the more famous New York Giants, with which they share a stadium. They were the first AFL team and to date the biggest underdog (by Las Vegas point spread) to win a Super Bowl, upsetting the then-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. However, this has so far proven their only Super Bowl win. MetLife is one of the newest stadiums in the NFL and the second-largest, able to host over 80,000 attendees.
- Baltimore Ravens, 5 M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore (in South Baltimore) – Named for Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem, the Ravens have enjoyed great success during their time in Baltimore, becoming a regular fixture in the playoffs. They are the product of a controversial and curious relocation of the Cleveland Browns in 1996, with the Ravens officially entering the league as an expansion team, despite them continuing with almost all their players and coaches as well as the same owner from their days in Cleveland.
- Cincinnati Bengals, 6 Paycor Stadium, Cincinnati – After years of frustration, the Bengals found new fire in the 2010s, and after another down period later that decade, reached the Super Bowl in 2021 (though losing), much to the delight of their fans. Cincinnati fans are noted for their "Who Dey!" chant, more specifically, "Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals? ...Nobody!" Before finally getting a corporate name in 2022, their stadium was known as Paul Brown Stadium, after the namesake of the Cleveland Browns, who was instrumental in the history of both Ohio teams.
- Cleveland Browns, 7 Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland (in Downtown Cleveland) – Despite a storied history, the Browns have had very little success to speak of in the last few decades (bottoming out in 2017, when they played only the second winless season in NFL history). Even the first signs of a resurgence in 2020 (which saw them earn their first playoff win in more than 20 years) haven't done much to mitigate the bitterness that Clevelanders still feel about the controversial relocation of the previous Browns franchise to Baltimore in 1995 and the three inactive seasons that followed. By necessity, Browns supporters are notoriously loyal: a curiosity of the fanbase is the "Dawg Pound" section behind the end zone, where fans often wear canine-related masks and costumes.
- Pittsburgh Steelers, 8 Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburgh (in the North Side) – The oldest franchise of the AFC (one of the three that moved from the NFL after the merger), the Steelers share the record for most Super Bowl victories, with six, and their wide-reaching and devoted fanbase makes them one of the most recognized teams in the NFL. Expect to view a sea of yellow and black terrible towels waving in the air whenever a play goes their way.
- Houston Texans, 9 NRG Stadium, Houston (in South Main) – The newest franchise in the NFL, dating back only to 2002. Due in part to their short history, they are one of three AFC teams to have never played in a Super Bowl. They are also the only team that has never played in a conference championship game. In spite of this, they have had several competitive seasons in the 2010s.
- Indianapolis Colts, 10 Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis – The Colts have proved fierce competitors in the 21st century, making regular playoff appearances. Once an NFL team from Baltimore, they first moved to the AFC upon the AFL–NFL merger and later controversially relocated to Indianapolis "overnight". Peyton Manning used to play here until 2011 and is both credited with spurring the construction of their stadium ("the house that Peyton built") and the team's enduring success which continued under successor quarterback Andrew Luck until his unexpected retirement just before the 2019 season.
- Jacksonville Jaguars, 11 EverBank Stadium, Jacksonville – The less successful of the 1995 expansion teams (and one of the three AFC teams to never make it to a Super Bowl), they are struggling on and off the field, having trouble selling out their stadium. As they play at least one "home" game per season in London, where their owner also owns a soccer team, relocation speculations had been rampant, but subsided after the team added a gigantic video board to its stadium and took out a few thousand seats (increasing fan comfort in the process).
- Tennessee Titans, 12 Nissan Stadium, Nashville – Formerly the Houston Oilers, they were the last team to have relocated prior to the Rams' and Chargers' sequential moves back to LA. The Titans have made it to the Super Bowl once since playing in Tennessee, famously losing one yard short of overtime in 2000 against the St. Louis Rams.
- Denver Broncos, 13 Empower Field at Mile High, Denver – The Broncos are among the most successful NFL teams, making frequent playoff runs and winning three Super Bowls, most recently in the 2015 season. They have had a number of famous quarterbacks, most notably John Elway, who won two Super Bowls as the Broncos quarterback in his final two seasons as a player and now manages the franchise; and Peyton Manning, who played his final four seasons in Denver after being let go by Indianapolis, with the Broncos' most recent Super Bowl win coming in his last game.
- Kansas City Chiefs, 14 Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City – The Chiefs enjoy one of the most rabid fanbases in football, and home crowds are noted for such antics as shouting "Chiefs!" as the final word of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the intimidating chant of "We're gonna beat the hell outta you... you... you, you, you, you!" You may want to bring earplugs along; fans of the Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks (see NFC West section) from time to time try to set new world records for measured crowd noise at outdoor venues. The Chiefs hold the record for now at 142.2 decibels, beyond the threshold of human pain.
- Las Vegas Raiders, 15 Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas (outside the city limits, just west of the Strip) – The Raiders ended their second stint in Oakland in the 2019 season, and started play in a new domed stadium in 2020. Among the most recognizable football teams, the Raiders are noted for their intensely passionate fans, the most visible of whom show up at games wearing intimidating costumes as members of the "Raider Nation". A very successful team for most of their history in Oakland, Los Angeles, and then Oakland again, they entered a severe decline in the 2000s, which they had started to climb out of in their final years in Oakland. The team's merchandise is iconic and widespread and can be found far away from Las Vegas or Oakland.
- Los Angeles Chargers, 16 SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California – After 56 seasons in San Diego, the Chargers returned to their original home of Los Angeles (where they played their first season in the old AFL) in 2017. After three seasons at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, the Chargers moved into their permanent home of SoFi Stadium in 2020, which they share with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFC West. Though the Chargers have won the AFL championship once (prior to the merger and thus the Super Bowl), they have never won the Super Bowl, losing to the San Francisco 49ers in their sole appearance.
- Dallas Cowboys, 17 AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas – A widely-known team with a national following, the Cowboys are among the most successful NFL teams. They play in a lavish domed stadium, which includes one of the world's largest video displays hanging over the field. The Cowboys like to call themselves "America's team" and as such are either ardently loved or hated by most people who care for football, with fans often accused of jumping on the bandwagon in the Cowboys' successful times. A special feature of the Cowboys' schedule is their annual Thanksgiving game (in late November, frequently against Washington, for a "Cowboys and Indians" theme).
- New York Giants, 18 MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey – One of the oldest and most successful franchises in the NFL, the Giants are based in the New York City area and share a stadium with the Jets of the AFC. Since Peyton's little brother Eli Manning became their quarterback in 2004, they haven't made the playoffs very often, but when they have they've been hugely successful, upsetting New England twice in the Super Bowl in the 2000s.
- Philadelphia Eagles, 19 Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia (in South Philly) – Sports-crazy Philadelphia is extremely loyal to its football team, which is noted for its heated rivalry with the Giants. The Eagles were the only NFC East team that hadn't won a Super Bowl until 2018 (2017 season), when they scored an upset victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
- Washington Commanders, 20 FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland – The team formerly known as the "Redskins" has had its glory days, most recently in 1991 with their latest of three Super Bowl wins. Increasing pressure to change their former name, which is seen as blatantly racist and offensive by many indigenous Americans, finally culminated with the announcement that the moniker would be retired in 2020, replaced with "Commanders" in 2022. They find themselves at the bottom of the NFC East more times than not.
- Chicago Bears, 21 Soldier Field, Chicago (in Near South) – One of the oldest NFL franchises in the oldest stadium, "Da Bears" are among the most recognized and successful teams in the NFL, and have a long-standing rivalry with the Green Bay Packers. Like a handful of the northernmost teams, expect some brutally cold games with the wind whipping off Lake Michigan in this open-air stadium. The Bears may not be long for Soldier Field, however, as the team is on the verge of buying the property of the now-closed Arlington Park horse track in the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights and building a new stadium.
- Detroit Lions, 22 Ford Field, Detroit (in Downtown Detroit) – While the Lions can claim four pre-merger NFL championships (the last dating from 1957), they haven't made it to the Super Bowl ever, the only NFC team with that distinction. Furthermore, they are the only team to have multiple seasons with no wins. Lions fans have a lot of heart to stick with the team. As with the Cowboys, the Lions have an annual game on Thanksgiving.
- Green Bay Packers, 23 Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin – The last of the small town teams from the founding of the NFL, the Packers have a powerful connection with their city and are the only community-owned major sports franchise in the USA. Packers fans also feel a strong connection to Vince Lombardi, who coached Green Bay to victory in the first two Super Bowls (hence why the Super Bowl trophy today bears his name). Despite being based in a small city, the Packers have a large and devoted following, who are often referred to as "cheeseheads" owing to their practice of wearing foam cheese-shaped hats. The team's success in the early years of the NFL as well as their championship "three-peat" in the 1960s (a feat that no other team in professional football has accomplished since) have made Green Bay one of the most storied franchises in football. Come dressed cozy, as this is another open-air stadium that gets extremely chilly.
- Minnesota Vikings, 24 U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis (in Downtown Minneapolis) – Vikings fans are noted for their practice of often wearing "Helga hats", purple Viking helmets with blond braids. A highlight of home games is the blowing of a loud viking horn to announce the arrival of the home team or celebrating a touchdown, which is often answered by the fans with horns of their own. They moved into a new stadium built on the site of their former stadium, the Metrodome, in 2016. The new stadium is loaded with all of the latest bells and whistles, including a largely transparent fixed roof and the closest seats to the field in any NFL stadium.
- Atlanta Falcons, 25 Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta (in Downtown Atlanta) – Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a mixed soccer and football facility, opened for the 2017 season as the replacement for the nearby Georgia Dome (which has since been demolished). While the South as a whole is crazy about all forms of football (from high school to the NFL) and Georgia is no exception to this rule, the Falcons are often regarded as an afterthought in national sports media. The team has made it to two Super Bowls but lost both, most recently in dramatic fashion in overtime, giving up the biggest lead ever overcome in the Super Bowl in the process.
- Carolina Panthers, 26 Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina (in Uptown Charlotte) – The other 1995 expansion team, they have enjoyed more success than the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars and are among the top playoff contenders nearly every year, most recently losing to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
- New Orleans Saints, 27 Caesars Superdome, New Orleans (in the CBD) – When the Saints go marching in, you can bet on New Orleans fans to cheer them on. The Saints are strongly identified with the city and have proved to be competitors since the mid-2000s. Their reemergence after Hurricane Katrina, as well as their Super Bowl win after years of abysmal performance that earned them the moniker of "Ain'ts", have often been cited as influencing the culture of the city deeply and giving locals hope in difficult times.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 28 Raymond James Stadium, Tampa – Have most recently enjoyed success under former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, winning the Super Bowl in his first season (2020), but he would retire for good after the 2022 season (he had briefly retired a year earlier). The Bucs' stadium is noted for its replica pirate ship, which besides being a great prop has cannons which fire confetti and even mini footballs into the crowd below. Although the Buccaneers are rarely contenders, they put on a fun show. Make sure to bring sunscreen as you will spend several hours in the sunlight at this open-air venue.
- Arizona Cardinals, 29 State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona – The oldest continuously run professional football team, having played in Chicago and St. Louis prior to their move to the Phoenix area, the "Bird Gang" have had some playoff success, but also hold the longest championship drought in football, with their last championship won in 1947.
- Los Angeles Rams, SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California – The reigning Super Bowl champions (2021 season), winning their first title in their L.A. history in their current stadium, the newest in the league. They also played in and lost the Super Bowl in 2018, before the new stadium opened in 2020 but after having returned from St. Louis in 2016. Before this current run of success, the Rams' last major successes were during their incredible runs in St. Louis with Kurt Warner at quarterback in the late 90s and early 2000s, which earned them two Super Bowl appearances and one title, as well as the nickname "greatest show on turf" for the offense of those years. The Rams actually started their life in Cleveland, and became the first NFL team on the West Coast in 1946. The Rams moved from their previous home of the L.A. Coliseum to the suburb of Inglewood in 2020, playing in a new stadium that they share with the Chargers. The most expensive stadium in history, costing about $5 billion, it's a unique combination of open-air and covered stadium, with a roof covering the entire field and seating area but still open to the elements.
- San Francisco 49ers, 30 Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California – Based in the Bay Area, the 'Niners are among the most successful teams in the NFL, with a string of Super Bowl victories in the 1980s. Before losing to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, they had five Super Bowl wins with no losses, the longest streak of unbeaten appearances in the Super Bowl to date. In 2014, the team moved out of San Francisco proper to play in the suburb of Santa Clara; the stadium is next to the team's headquarters.
- Seattle Seahawks, 31 Lumen Field, Seattle (in Sodo) – The Seahawks have had considerable success in the 2010s (winning Super Bowl XLVIII and appearing in XLIX), with a passionate (and loud, owing to the stadium's design) fanbase that is collectively referred to as the "12th Man", who are honored with a giant #12 flag raised at the start of each home game.
NFL International Series
Even though gridiron football is strongly associated with North America, the NFL has long had ambitions to make the sport a worldwide phenomenon, starting with a short-lived European league in the 1990s and early 2000s. The NFL International Series[dead link] is a set of regular season games that take place outside the United States, the only NFL matches that do so. The International Series premiered in 2007 and has been regularly held in North London's 32 Wembley Stadium. Originally a once-a-year event, the series has since expanded to three games a season (extending to stadiums beyond just Wembley), and further expanded to four for 2017. Only three games were played in 2018, but the series returned to four games in 2019. Though the quality of the teams playing in London hasn't always been top-notch (usually it's been teams that are unlikely to contend for the playoffs that take part), nearly every game of the International Series has sold out and the NFL tries to attract fan and media attention by hosting events throughout the game weekend, often including former or current NFL superstars. All NFL teams have competed in the series, with the Green Bay Packers having been the last to do so in 2022. The Jacksonville Jaguars have a particularly strong following in the UK, in no small part because that team's owner also owns a soccer club in London.
Once the schedule for each season is set, as per the North American convention, the designated "home" team will be mentioned second. Games are being held in the following venues in London:
- One game will be at Wembley Stadium in each season from 2022 to 2024. The Jaguars hosted a 2022 game at Wembley.
- At least two games each season at 33 Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new home of Tottenham Hotspur (aka Spurs) of soccer's Premier League, from 2019–2027. The stadium had originally been set to open in time for the 2018 NFL season, but due to construction delays only one NFL game was scheduled there for that season, and that game was ultimately moved to Wembley. The Packers and New Orleans Saints each "hosted" a game at this stadium in 2022.
Germany was added to the list of countries hosting International Series games starting in 2022, with at least one game in each season through 2025. The first game in the Germany series was in 2022 at Allianz Arena in Munich.
Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic led to the NFL canceling all international games in 2020, with the games moved back to the United States. The league had already announced that the Jacksonville Jaguars would "host" two of the 2020 games, and the Miami Dolphins would "host" one. London returned to the schedule in 2021 with two games, with three following in 2022.
Other NFL games outside the US
Some exhibition and regular season NFL games have been held in Canada, Mexico or other places outside of the US in the past, but this is no longer being done. However, a game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders (the designated home team) was held at Mexico City's 34 Estadio Azteca on November 21, 2016. With that game selling out, the NFL announced that it would return to Mexico City in 2017, with the Raiders "hosting" the New England Patriots on 19 November at Estadio Azteca. That game also sold out, and the NFL announced it would hold at least one Mexico City game each season through 2021. The 2018 game, however, was moved to Los Angeles on less than a week's notice due to issues with the playing field.
The Arizona Cardinals were set to be the "home" team for the 2020 Mexico City game, with the date and opponent unannounced. That game was also moved to the United States due to COVID-19, and the only games held outside the US in 2021 were in London. The Mexico City game returned in 2022 with the Cardinals as the "home" team, but is now on a temporary hiatus due to the Azteca. the country's only stadium that meets NFL standards, being renovated for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Super Bowl and Pro Bowl
The Super Bowl, the NFL championship game that pits the AFC champion against the best of the NFC, is the biggest single-day event in sports and one of the most watched TV programs worldwide every year. Many fans dream of seeing a Super Bowl live once in their lifetime, but tickets sell out extremely quickly and unless you have luck, patience, a lot of money, or know the right people getting tickets is extremely hard, if not impossible.
The Super Bowl is a major annual event in the United States and has even become something of an unofficial holiday, drawing the attention even of people who don't typically follow football. There has been a media obsession with Super Bowl commercials, due to the exceptionally high cost of airtime during the Super Bowl television broadcast and the increasingly theatrical nature of these advertisements. Super Bowl Sunday is also one of the busiest days for food delivery of any kind—tip accordingly—and high amounts of fast food are eaten.
Even if you can't make it to the game, being in the city of the Super Bowl during Super Bowl weekend can be a worthwhile reason for travel all by itself. The highlight of Super Bowl festivities is the NFL Experience, a fan festival that takes place the week prior to the game in the host city and has lots of games, vendors, a giant souvenir/collectibles store and autograph opportunities. You can get free gear, participate in virtual reality football games, go zip-lining, and generally be in the center of the action without actually attending the game itself. Wherever the Super Bowl is held, expect packed hotels, more expensive flights (or bus/train tickets if and where applicable) and a general state far from normalcy in and around the host city.
Venues are chosen and announced years ahead and the date has shifted from being in January for several years to being held on the second full weekend in February. (The most recent change was due to the NFL expanding its regular season from 16 to 17 games in 2021.) The next events are scheduled to be:
- Super Bowl LVIII, February 11, 2024 / Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas
- Super Bowl LIX, February 9, 2025 / Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
Finally, the Pro Bowl is an all-star match played a week before the Super Bowl. For several years, this one-off game was played in Hawaii, but has since moved to the US mainland, most recently to Las Vegas in 2022 and 2023. The Pro Bowl is a more low-key event than the Super Bowl—e.g., the NFL does not allow players from the Super Bowl teams to play in the Pro Bowl, to avoid injuries and focus on the big game. Starting with the 2023 edition (2022 season), the event is now known as the Pro Bowl Games, with various skills competitions leading up to a series of three non-contact flag football games. But for someone who is even a casual fan, the Pro Bowl is a unique experience to see several of the game's greatest players having fun. Events will frequently include older stars who have retired and may be honored at the proceedings.
College football is the primary and almost only source of talent for the NFL. The college season runs roughly concurrent with the NFL season, with most games held on Saturdays. In college football, there are several divisions that represent different levels of play (so that lower division schools rarely compete against higher division ones), and teams usually play in or close to the town the university they represent is located. Post-season "bowl games" also usually take place at fixed locations.
As mentioned before, college football is separated into different levels of play. However, the most prominent college football programs belong to the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), part of Division I. Within the FBS are the Power 5 conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, Southeastern Conference), which (in addition to independent Notre Dame, an ACC member for non-football sports) represent the highest standard of play in collegiate football. Below is a selection of the most prominent college football teams in the United States, sorted by region:
- Alabama Crimson Tide, Bryant–Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Alabama – College football is practically a religion in Alabama, and the Crimson Tide represent the state's premier program. The Tide are known for a pair of highly successful coaches: Bear Bryant, who led the team to 6 national championships during the 60s and 70s, and current coach Nick Saban, who in his 15 seasons has led the team to 6 championships, most recently in 2020.
- Auburn Tigers, Jordan–Hare Stadium, Auburn, Alabama – The other major conference team in Alabama has a storied rivalry with the Crimson Tide. The Iron Bowl game between the two teams is traditionally played in the last week of the regular season, and while the Tigers lag behind in terms of on-field success, their fans can be just as rabid in their support of their team.
- Clemson Tigers, Memorial Stadium, Clemson, South Carolina – Clemson has found major success under coach Dabo Swinney, winning two national championships in the last part of the 2010s (2016 and 2018 seasons, defeating Alabama for both).
- Georgia Bulldogs, Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia - The Bulldogs' rabid fans stuck with their team through the years following their national championship in 1980, and have been rewarded with two more national titles in 2021 and 2022, with the latter championship game being a historic blowout.
- LSU Tigers, Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana – A traditional national contender, most recently winning the 2019 national championship, with a home field that boasts one of the most distinctive atmospheres in the sport, especially for night games.
- Army Black Knights, Michie Stadium, West Point, New York – The oldest of the country's service academies plays in a scenic stadium on the banks of the Hudson River, with extensive military pageantry and the entire Corps of Cadets (except for those on the field or on guard duty) cheering on the Black Knights from a dedicated section. See also the section on the Army–Navy Game.
- Navy Midshipmen, Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland – Much the same type of experience as an Army game, though in not quite as scenic a setting; substitute "Brigade of Midshipmen" for "Corps of Cadets". See also the section on the Army–Navy Game.
- Penn State Nittany Lions, Beaver Stadium, State College, Pennsylvania – While the Eagles and Steelers draw the most attention in the state's two largest cities, the Nittany Lions rule the state's center. A traditional national contender with a storied history, they are also notable for their "White Outs", night games in which all fans are encouraged to wear white.
- Michigan Wolverines, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan – The Wolverines have a long and storied history, and enthusiastic supporters. Their home field, nicknamed "The Big House", is the largest non-motorsports stadium in the United States.
- Minnesota Golden Gophers, Huntington Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Indiana – One of the few independent programs remaining in the FBS has an iconic place in college football lore. The Fighting Irish are the team of the "Gipper", the "Four Horsemen", and coaches Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, and Ara Parseghian.
- Ohio State Buckeyes, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio – Ohio may have two NFL teams, but the Buckeyes command the entire state's loyalty. Their rivalry with the Wolverines is as fierce as ever.
- Wisconsin Badgers, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin
- Texas Longhorns, Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, Texas – "The Eyes of Texas" lie upon the Longhorns, despite the domination of the 1960s and 70s being a memory.
- Texas A&M Aggies, Kyle Field, College Station, Texas – The Aggies also command a large fanbase in Texas, despite laboring under the shadow of their more successful rivals, the Longhorns, for a very long time. The "12th Men" at Kyle Field are known for their numerous traditions and chants.
- Nebraska Cornhuskers, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Nebraska – Even after the dominance of the 1990s faded away, Nebraska's love for their Huskers is so fierce that, when filled to capacity, Memorial Stadium becomes the state's third largest city, and every Cornhusker football home game since 1962 has been sold out.
- North Dakota State Bison. Fargodome, Fargo, North Dakota – Though not an FBS program, the Bison are notable as the utterly dominant force of the other level of D-I football, the Football Championship Subdivision. NDSU's 2021 FCS title was its ninth in 11 seasons.
- Oklahoma Sooners, Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, Oklahoma
- California Golden Bears, California Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, California
- Stanford Cardinal, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, California
- USC Trojans, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California (in Exposition Park, at the northern edge of South Central) – The most storied team on the West Coast, with numerous national titles, legendary players, and decades-long rivalries with Notre Dame and fellow Los Angeles school UCLA.
- Air Force Falcons, Falcon Stadium, just to the north of Colorado Springs, Colorado – The newest of the Division I service academies offers much the same military pageantry as Army and Navy, with a military fly-by before each home game.
- Boise State Broncos', Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho – Though probably most famous for their blue playing surface, the Broncos have been a frequent millstone to "power conference" teams since the first decade of the 2000s.
- BYU Cougars, LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah – The only school to have claimed an FBS title in the modern era while outside of the current "Power Five" conferences (1984), though it became "Power Five" when it joined the Big 12 Conference in 2023. While not quite at the rarefied level they reached in the 1980s, the Cougars are still a very competitive program, with a spicy rivalry against Utah.
- Utah Utes, Rice–Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City – BYU's eternal rival has enjoyed solid success in the current century. The Utes' home stadium hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and the Olympic cauldron still stands just outside the stadium, although it's no longer at its original location.
There are numerous college football conferences in the United States. Teams play both in-conference and out-of-conference games. If you are interested in seeing a college football game somewhere where you are visiting, look at the websites of local colleges for schedule and other useful information. The atmosphere at college games is very different from what you would experience at an NFL game, with a lot more cheerleading (cheerleaders are those pretty women in flashy uniforms, often partnered with muscular men in slightly less flashy uniforms, who chant things and do dance and sometimes acrobatic moves) and performances by the college's pep band (a marching band) and dance team (more pretty women in flashy uniforms, but they only dance and don't do acrobatics) during halftime and other breaks in the action. There are myriad local rivalries; some teams located close to an opponent (e.g. Michigan and Michigan State or Texas and Texas A&M) may have a crowd made up of even contingents for both squads, although this normally happens only when the game is held at a neutral site within easy reach of both fanbases (e.g. Oklahoma–Texas, held in Dallas, and Florida–Georgia, held in Jacksonville). Outright hooliganism or violence is rare, but emotions can run high and these can result in especially rowdy audiences.
Conference championship games
Since the 2018 season, all 10 FBS conferences have held championship games. As of the upcoming 2023 season, four of these feature the champions of the league's two football divisions, namely those of the Big Ten Conference, Mid-American Conference (MAC), Southeastern Conference (SEC), and Sun Belt Conference (SBC). The other six—the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), American Athletic Conference (The American), Big 12 Conference, Conference USA (C-USA), Mountain West Conference (MW), and Pac-12 Conference—instead feature the top two teams in the final conference standings. All conference championship games are held on the first full weekend of December. The Power Five conferences all hold their title games in NFL stadiums, as does the Mid-American Conference.
- Games with permanent sites
- ACC – Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, home of the Carolina Panthers.
- Big Ten – Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home of the Colts.
- Big 12 – AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
- MAC – Ford Field in Detroit, home of the Lions.
- Pac-12 – Allegiant Stadium just outside the Las Vegas city limits, home of the Raiders (but see below regarding conference realignment).
- SEC – Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of the Falcons.
- The other four Group of Five leagues—The American, C-USA, MW, and SBC—play their championship games on campus. The SBC game is hosted by the divisional champion with the better conference record; all others are hosted by the team with the best conference record.
With C-USA shrinking from 14 members to 11 in 2022, it abandoned its divisional lineup and adopted a single league table. The SBC expanded to 14 members for the 2022 season; the only change to its championship (at least for 2022) was its divisional alignment. The American now has 14 members, but did not return to the divisional model it used from 2013–2019. Due to a change in NCAA rules surrounding conference championship games, it's an open question whether any conference will keep or adopt a divisional structure. (Said change directly led to the ACC, MW, Pac-12, and SEC eliminating football divisions, with the Pac-12 doing so in 2022, the ACC and MW in 2023, and the SEC set to do so in 2024.)
- The ACC will expand to 17 football members in 2024 with the arrival of California, SMU, and Stanford.
- Notre Dame is independent in football, but is otherwise an ACC member, and has an extensive cross-scheduling agreement in football with the rest of the ACC.
- The American most recently expanded to 14 members in 2023. In 2024, SMU will leave for the ACC, but Army will join its rival service academy Navy as a football-only member, keeping the conference at 14 football members.
- The Big 12 added four schools in 2023, expanding its membership to 14. It will expand to 16 members in 2024, losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC but gaining Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah from the Pac-12.
- The Big Ten will expand to 18 members in 2024 with the arrival of Oregon, Washington, and Los Angeles rivals UCLA and USC.
- Conference USA contracted to 9 members in 2023 and will return to 10 members in 2024.
- With the Pac-12 losing 10 of its 12 members in 2024, it will certainly cease to exist in its current form. Even if the "Pac-12" name survives—the two leftovers, Oregon State and Washington State, are reportedly exploring a friendly merger with the Mountain West Conference—its status as a "power conference" will likely be history.
- The SEC will expand to 16 members in 2024.
Another prominent college football event is the Army–Navy Game, the annual matchup between the teams of two of the country's five military academies—the Army Black Knights of the United States Military Academy and Navy Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy. The game, held on the second Saturday of December (the week after FBS conference championship games), is steeped in military pageantry and decades-old traditions, and is a unique combination of bitter competitiveness and mutual respect. Even though neither team has been nationally relevant in the modern era, thanks to players being subject to mandatory military commitments and weight limits, the game remains nationally televised to this day, and is now the last game of college football's regular season. While the game has been played in a number of places during its history, it's usually played in Philadelphia at the Eagles' home of Lincoln Financial Field. Starting in 2024, both academies will be football-only members of the American Athletic Conference, but they will still play on their traditional date outside the conference. (In the very unlikely event that both qualify for the conference championship game, they will play in back-to-back weeks.)
Much like the Army-Navy game, the "Ivy League" - the conference of America's preeminent and most traditional educational institutions on the East Coast - has over a century of tradition, pageantry and rivalries, but in terms of the likelihood of any of the players on the field ever playing in the NFL, they are an afterthought. In part this is due to the Ivy League not giving scholarships based on sports ability alone. In addition, the Ivies play in Division I FCS, the second tier of NCAA football. That said, Ivy League alumni who've played an important part in the early history of the sport (for example, Walter Camp attended Harvard, and coached Amos Alonzo Stagg at Yale) continue to shape the game and its equipment with a former Harvard Quarterback founding the Xenith company that introduced a few innovations in helmet design.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—schools founded during the era of legal segregation to educate African Americans—have unique football traditions of their own. Before the Civil Rights Movement, many traditional flagship universities in the South were off-limits to African Americans, with some not even allowed to play against integrated teams, much less all-black ones. Talented black players in the South who wanted to play in college had two options—leave the region, or play at an HBCU. In the immediate post-World War II era, many HBCU stars made their way to the NFL, with a significant number becoming all-time greats. The rival leagues the NFL had to fend off in the 1940s (AAFC) and 1960s (AFL) both became known for drafting more people from HBCUs and other small universities overlooked by the established and more conservative NFL. With integration, almost all of the most talented black players now attend traditional major schools, both within and outside the South, but the traditions of black college football are still a significant part of African-American culture—even if all of the HBCUs now play in Division I FCS, or in lower levels of college football. Similarly HBCUs now admit white students and they have of course taken to the Football field just as well as black students.
Many HBCU games are marketed as "classics", often held at neutral sites and some in distant cities. When marketed in this way, the game is typically the culmination of several days of festivities, with concerts, parties, and "battles of the bands". The last of these involves special performances by the marching bands of the schools involved; HBCU bands are famous for incorporating extensive theatrics into their musical performances, and are not to be missed, whether at a halftime show or at an outside event.
A little-known variant of college football governed completely outside the NCAA structure, sprint football is played under standard college rules, but its players can weigh no more than 178 pounds (81 kg). This weight limit places a premium on speed and agility. As of the current 2023 season, 16 schools play this variant (some of which also have full-sized teams), divided into two leagues. The Collegiate Sprint Football League features 8 schools in the northeastern quadrant of the country, including Army, Navy, and a couple of Ivy League schools. The Midwest Sprint Football League started play in 2022 with 6 schools in the Midwest and Upper South and added two more members for 2023.
Bowl games and the College Football Playoff
For several decades, there was no championship tournament in Division I college football, unlike the NFL's Super Bowl or the NCAA's Final Four in basketball, but the post-season has been restructured into a unique tournament style. After the regular season, starting before Christmas and going until January, there are numerous bowl games. These games are heavily advertised and extremely profitable for the schools whose teams are picked to play in them, and also for the TV networks that offer live coverage. Some have long traditions, while others are much newer. The most famous is the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, which takes place every New Year's Day and is ushered in with a parade, but the Sugar Bowl (in the New Orleans Saints' stadium), the Cotton Bowl (in the Cowboys' stadium in Arlington), and the Orange Bowl (in the Miami Dolphins' stadium) are also famous and take place around New Year's. Since the 2014 season, these four bowls, along with the Fiesta Bowl (in the Arizona Cardinals' stadium near Phoenix) and Peach Bowl (in the Atlanta Falcons' stadium), are part of the College Football Playoff (CFP), the de facto national championship for major college football. Through the 2023 season, two of the six previously mentioned bowl games rotate as hosts of CFP semifinal games, while slots in the other four games are filled by other top teams. The winners of the two semifinals advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship, whose host is determined by open bidding several years in advance. Sites for the championship game have been announced through the 2025 season (with the title game being played early in the next calendar year):
Starting with the 2024 season, the CFP will expand to 12 teams: the top six conference champions in the CFP rankings will automatically participate, but no conference will receive an automatic bid. The other six slots will be selected by the same committee that ranks teams and invites playoff participants. The four top-ranked conference champions receive first-round byes; the remaining eight teams will play at the home stadiums of the higher seeds in each matchup (the higher seed can also designate an off-campus site). The quarterfinals and semifinals will be hosted by the current "New Year's Six" bowl games (Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, Sugar), with each bowl hosting two quarterfinals and one semifinal in a three-year cycle. As before, the CFP National Championship will be held at a predetermined site.
- 2024: NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas (home of the Houston Texans), 8 January
- 2025: Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (home of the Atlanta Falcons), 20 January
- 2026: Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida (home of the Miami Dolphins), 19 January
Bowl games are huge events, so tickets may be expensive and hard to come by, especially for the major bowls listed above.
The lower divisions of college football each play a traditional single-elimination tournament, just like the majority of NCAA sports (with baseball and softball as the most notable exceptions).
Events outside the USA
From time to time colleges hold games outside the USA, while some of these are exhibition games of either sub-par American colleges or against local teams that don't stand much of a chance, there are sometimes regular games of two American college teams against each other in order to raise awareness for the sport and boost revenue for teams that have trouble selling out their home games. An additional enticement for teams is that an NCAA rule allows teams that play a game outside the continental U.S. (including the University of Hawaii and all of its home opponents) to schedule 13 regular-season games instead of the normal limit of 12; the extra game is invariably played at home.
Leagues outside the USA
College football has been played in Mexico since the 1920s. Teams play under the auspices of ONEFA (Organización Nacional Estudiantil de Fútbol Americano), which functions in a role similar to that of the NCAA. There are four conferences in the ONEFA with a total of 33 teams. The oldest team is the Pumas from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, who have been playing since 1927. Mexico City is the most popular area for college football in Mexico with 6 teams in the city itself and several more in the State of Mexico and other nearby cities and states.
Canadian Football League
The Canadian Football League (CFL) is the second professional league of the sport. Canadian football has significantly different rules from the American version of the sport:
- there are three downs instead of four,
- 12 players instead of 11,
- larger playing fields (110 yd (100 m) long + two 20 yd (18 m) end zones, and 65 yd (59 m) wide)
These rules cause football to be more of a passing game in Canada than the United States. In addition, while American football places the goal posts at the end lines, Canadian football places the goal posts at the goal lines. The Canadian rules are actually closer to the "Ur-Football" Walter Camp envisioned way back when, with most differences originating with innovations on the U.S. side of the border.
The scoring is for the most part similar to American football, except that in Canadian football, players may also score a "single" or "rouge", which is worth 1 point, if the ball is kicked into the end zone other than during a successful field goal, and the defence fails to get the ball out.
The overtime rules also differ significantly between Canadian and American football. In Canadian football, if the scores are tied at the end of the game, each team will be given offensive possession of the ball at the opponent's 35-yard line, and play continues until the offensive team scores or the ball is turned over. If the offensive team scores a touchdown, unlike during regular play, only 2-point conversions may be attempted. After both teams have been given the opportunity to score, the team with more points wins. If the scores are still tied, both teams will get another opportunity to score. During the regular season, if both teams are still tied after both teams have been give two opportunities to score, the game ends in a tie. During the playoffs, the overtime continues indefinitely until a winner emerges.
While the level of play was comparable prior to the advent of television, the CFL is nowadays often regarded as a lesser league than the NFL, due to — among other things — lower salaries, attendance figures and TV ratings. The NFL is very popular among sports fans in Canada. Within Canada, the CFL is generally most popular in western Canada, while the NFL is more popular than the CFL everywhere else, though even in the west the NFL is rapidly gaining on the CFL.
For three disastrous seasons in the mid-1990s, the CFL experimented with fielding teams in the U.S. Besides the odd result of Baltimore (then without an NFL franchise) becoming Canadian champion once, it hasn't left much of a mark upon the league.
Several CFL players have played in the NFL and vice versa, and due to the differences in rules and tactics not every former NFL great was successful after moving north, while others, like quarterback Doug Flutie, who was short but a great passer, did much better in the CFL than they had in the NFL. Additionally, play in the CFL is far more competitive: in the decade of the 2010s, all but one of the nine CFL teams won the championship, whereas the NFL had seven different champions out of 32 teams.
The Canadian season overlaps the NFL, running roughly June–November with each team playing 18 games and getting two bye weeks. The championship game, the Grey Cup, is usually played in late November.
- Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 35 Tim Hortons Field, Hamilton – Playing in one of the smallest markets in North America and close to Canada's largest city, the Tiger-Cats are the result of a merger of two teams shortly after World War II. Their style of play is as resilient and plucky as their franchise history. If you want to blend in with the locals, paint some whiskers onto your face (and even if you're from out of town, that's okay—Hamilton prides itself on having a huge percentage of non-native fans). A final source of local pride is that the Ticats are the only CFL team to defeat an American one in exhibition play, besting the Buffalo Bills in 1961. (This may be a sore spot as the NFL hasn't extended the offer for cross-league play since!) Unfortunately for their fans, they're the only team that has failed to lift the Grey Cup in the 21st century, having last won it in 1999. (The Ticats lost three Grey Cup finals in the 2010s, and also lost the 2021 final.)
- Montreal Alouettes, 36 Percival Molson Memorial Stadium (Stade Percival-Molson), Montreal (in Downtown Montreal) – The Alouettes are true survivors, having folded and been revived twice in their history (most recently in 1996, when the aforementioned Baltimore Stallions were the last U.S. CFL team to throw in the towel and move north of the border). Brush up a little on your French and try to catch a Labour Day Classic against rival Ottawa RedBlacks on the Thursday or Friday prior to the holiday. (And in case you're wondering: alouette means "lark", and is also the title of a famous French-Canadian folk song.)
- Ottawa RedBlacks, 37 TD Place Stadium, Ottawa – They are the newest addition to the league, having first taken the field in 2014. Ottawa's original team, the Rough Riders, was a founding member of the CFL and played for 120 seasons. (The new franchise is named after color scheme of the Rough Riders, but did not take up the old name due to its similarity to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Western Division.) In only their third season, they were the CFL champions. Their historic field, which has been in operation for a variety of sports events since the 1870s, hosted the 105th Grey Cup in 2017 in a special ceremony recognizing 150 years of Canadian confederation.
- Toronto Argonauts, 38 BMO Field, Toronto (in Harbourfront) – Founded in 1873, the Argonauts have racked up a record 18 championships, most recently the 109th Grey Cup in 2022. This legacy also includes two rivalries lasting over a century with Hamilton- and Ottawa-based teams. You also can't miss the "Argonotes" — a volunteer group of musicians that play classic rock tunes and fight songs in a marching band style.
- BC Lions, 39 BC Place, Vancouver (in Yaletown) – Since the 1990s, they have been one of the CFL's most consistent teams, playing in 20 consecutive playoffs. Their gorgeous BC Place stadium is nestled on the water of False Creek.
- Calgary Stampeders, 40 McMahon Stadium, Calgary (in Northwest Calgary) – One quirk of this long-standing franchise is that their fans bring horses (real ones) into hotels on the day of the Grey Cup, whether or not their team makes it to the end of the postseason. This bizarre tradition, now covered by Canadian national media as part of Grey Cup festivities, dates back more than 70 years. If you see a home game of theirs in McMahon Stadium, make sure to take in some of the surrounding University of Calgary campus. They also have the distinction of the only perfect season in CFL history, from 1948—which incidentally was the first year of the aforementioned equine tradition.
- Edmonton Elks, 41 Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton (in Central Edmonton) – Possibly the most successful team in CFL history, the former "Eskimos" have lost some of their competitiveness, but have still racked up 14 Grey Cups, including an unprecedented streak of five in the 1980s. (The moniker became the Elks in 2021.) Matches against their rivals the Stampeders are particularly electrifying. Games are typically packed, as EE usually has the largest average attendance of a CFL team. Make sure that you watch the cheerleading squad as it's one of the few co-ed ones in major league sports.
- Saskatchewan Roughriders, 42 Mosaic Stadium, Regina – The Roughriders are community-owned and a staple of this comparatively tiny market, having been founded in 1910. Fans are so loyal that matches against their rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers usually sell out before the season even starts. Due to the colours of their uniforms, Roughriders fans will adorn themselves with helmets carved from watermelon and oftentimes a flag of the team's logo tied as a cape.
- Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 43 IG Field, Winnipeg – The Blue Bombers had a long Grey Cup drought, now emphatically ended, and substantial administrative turnover for the past 30 years but have maintained one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports with the Roughriders. If you attend a home game, enjoy their new stadium and take a look at the walk of fame which recognizes a long history of contenders from years gone by — the Bombers have had down times, but they're never out for good. The Bombers won back-to-back Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021 (no 2020 season was held thanks to COVID), and lost the 2022 edition to Toronto.
Minor and indoor leagues
As football is very popular in the United States, there are minor leagues to serve cities without a NFL franchise. These leagues aren't officially recognized by the NFL or any other governing body, and thus tend to make their own rules, sometimes with "gimmicky" innovations to attract viewers. Unlike baseball, the overwhelming majority of NFL players come directly from college leagues and very few players from minor leagues ever make it to the NFL. Due to the lower public interest and revenue, minor leagues are rather volatile with teams frequently folding, relocating, or switching leagues. Many minor leagues have had to cease operations in their entirety and even the Arena Football League had to cancel one season on short notice due to economic problems. Some minor leagues play a spring schedule to avoid competition with the NFL's fall schedule.
The most successful minor league had been the indoor Arena Football League, which played on a shorter field with modified rules to adapt to the indoor environment. In both attendance and quality of play, the Arena Football League was the most "major" of the minor leagues and some players (notably Kurt Warner) managed to make an NFL roster after having previously played arena football. By comparison with NFL games, which tend to pack in sellout crowds of mostly casual fans, the fans at arena football games were fewer in number but more diehard. There's also less pageantry incorporated into the games, but concession and merchandise were much more affordable. If you are in the front lines of any game played under indoor rules, regardless of the league, you will be immediately next to the field of play as well. An indoor league game may be a cheaper and more exciting option for someone who isn't accustomed to gridiron football.
The AFL had enjoyed significant success in the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century, but by the end of the decade ran into financial trouble, folding after its 2007 season. However, the AFL had a flourishing minor league at the time, and several teams from that league bought the original AFL's assets in a bankruptcy auction, relaunching the AFL in 2009. After a few years, the revived league ran into its own financial problems, ceasing all operations and also filing for bankruptcy liquidation after the 2019 season. The AFL assets have been bought over by new investors, who intend to re-launch the league in 2024.
Other minor leagues
A variety of other minor leagues pop up and fold from time to time. None of them are "professional" in the strict sense of the term, although they tend to pay their players some money. As this is an extremely volatile market, teams and even entire leagues have folded before ever playing a single down of football. Indoor leagues other than the AFL are especially noted for their volatility. There are even women's football matches, although these are rare. Expect these other leagues to play on high school or university fields.
Notably, in the late 2010s, two minor outdoor leagues announced plans to play spring seasons, thereby avoiding head-on conflict with the NFL. The first was the Alliance of American Football, which began play in 2019 with ambitions of becoming an unofficial developmental league for the NFL. However, despite good reviews and decent TV ratings, the league didn't make it to the end of its first season, with its main investor pulling the plug that April. The second, which started play in February 2020, is a revival of the XFL. It was initially owned by professional wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, who also founded the original XFL, which played only one season in 2001. The first XFL, also a spring league, was widely criticized for a lack of high-level player talent, and perhaps more so for taking a "sports entertainment" approach to football similar to that seen in modern pro wrestling. McMahon hired several experienced football executives for the revived league, and publicly distanced the new XFL from his main business of WWE. The new XFL has marketed itself more as a complement to the NFL instead of a direct competitor. It launched with eight teams, all in cities that are current or former homes of NFL teams. The XFL also didn't finish its first season, though for an entirely different reason—it was one of countless sports leagues throughout the world that were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It paid all players their base pay and benefits for the entire 2020 season, and resumed play in 2023 (delayed from the original 2021 schedule). During its hiatus, it was bought out of bankruptcy by a group led by WWE megastar turned Hollywood A-list actor Dwayne Johnson, and has since announced a partnership with the NFL in which the XFL serves as a test bed for rules changes and help to develop coaches and game officials.
In the meantime, a new version of the United States Football League began play in April 2022. The new league, partly owned by Fox Sports, paid for the rights to use most of the intellectual property of its 1980s predecessor—the league name and logo, and most of the old league's team names and logos. The new USFL launched with 8 teams and played its first regular season entirely in Birmingham, Alabama; due to conflicts with Birmingham hosting the 2022 World Games, the playoffs were held in Canton, Ohio. The USFL did not commit to moving all teams to their nominal home markets. Birmingham and Canton were joined by Detroit and Memphis as "hubs" for 2023, with each city hosting two teams.
The USFL and XFL have announced plans to merge for the 2024 season. The brand name of the merged league, plus the number and location of teams, have yet to be announced.
High school football
Though not professional play, high school football is extremely popular in many towns and small cities across North America, particularly in the American South and the Midwest, where local followings can rival the passion of even college and NFL team fans. High school games typically take place on Friday nights, and like college games usually have cheerleading squads, marching bands, and mascots to entertain fans. As an event, in many small towns and rural regions of the States, a high school football game serves as a huge communal event that brings together different generations and classes who may not otherwise mix. In many of these places, businesses will close for the game and some (e.g. restaurants) will have extended hours afterward. With very few exceptions, high school games will be played in open air and that includes during some sweltering August games in Texas as well as frigid December matches in Montana.
Leagues outside the U.S. and Canada
There is a football world cup held every four years since 1999 with the next event scheduled for the summer of 2019, with eight teams participating. While football is almost exclusively played in fall and winter in the US and Canada, it is much more of a summer sport in Europe, with many countries having little or no overlap between their domestic football season and the NFL season. This is in part to avoid cannibalizing the market share of NFL and domestic football, but also because most European teams play on natural turf; often on fields shared with soccer teams.
The other international competition is the European championship with domestic European leagues supplying almost all of the players (both the NFL and top college teams don't allow their players to play for national teams) the last event was 2014 in Austria with the final drawing 27,000 spectators to Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium where Germany beat Austria in double overtime to win its second title in a row and third overall. The next European championship is scheduled to be held in Germany in 2018 with all games planned to be held in Frankfurt.
There are national amateur or semi-pro leagues in a number of countries with the German Football League in Germany, the Austrian Football League in Austria (with one team in Prague and another in Ljubljana) or the X League in Japan drawing notable crowds for important games and some teams playing in modern stadiums on par with professional sports.
American football also enjoys quite some support in Mexico and in fact, the attendance record for an NFL game was set during a one-off game in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca. There has been some form of college football since the 1920s and the current organization ONEFA has been organizing a national college championship since 1978. Mexico launched a fully professional league in 2016 with four teams in Mexico City, which has since expanded to 9 teams for the next season in 2020 (Monterrey and Saltillo in 2017, Puebla City and Toluca in 2019, and Querétaro for 2020). Mexico also participates in World Cups of American Football, where the National Team usually fights for third place with Japan behind dominant Canada and USA.
The best club teams of Europe meet every year in the Big Six[dead link] invitation tournament, with all games but the final held at the normal home venues or alternative bigger stadiums in the same city of the participating teams. For the 2017 season, the participating teams were: New Yorker Lions (from Braunschweig), the Berlin Rebels, Frankfurt Universe, the Amsterdam Crusaders, the Milano Seamen, and the Badalona Dracs. In 2017, Braunschweig defended its title against the Samsung Frankfurt Universe in Eurobowl XXXI held in Frankfurt. While national finals in Europe have often been held at neutral sites, the Eurobowl is usually held in the home stadium of one of the participants and as such venue and exact date are subject to change. Rough dates for the 2018 season have already been announced, but as the participating teams have not been announced yet neither venues nor exact dates are known.
Another European competition, the EFL Bowl has been introduced when the Euro Bowl was changed to its current "big six" format and has been won by a German entrant in all of its first three seasons. However, EFL Bowl IV saw no German participation with the Thonon Black Panthers from France beating Italy's Milano Rhinos. According to official announcements the winner of the EFL Bowl is to play a promotion/relegation round against the last placed big six participant (similar to the mode for ice hockey world championships), but participants in both big six and EFL Bowl have in the past been chosen for off the field factors such as willingness and ability to pay rather than mere on the field performance.
A new pan-European league of American football, the European League of Football (ELF) started play in 2021 with six teams in Germany and one each in Spain (Barcelona; playing home games in Reus) and Poland (Wroclaw). Several of their teams use old NFL Europe names (with permission by the NFL) and the rules are modified NFL rules for the most part while most other Football competitions in Europe use modified NCAA rules.
Other football sites
- 1 Pro Football Hall of Fame, 221 George Halas Dr NW, Canton, Ohio, ☏ . Summer (Memorial Day – Labor Day) 9AM–8PM daily, fall–spring 9AM–5PM daily; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hosting the world's largest collection of pro football memorabilia, this site also features the Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery and GameDay Stadium theater, which shows the deep archive of NFL Films documentaries. It is undergoing a mammoth expansion in preparation of the NFL's centennial in 2020. The Hall hosts an induction ceremony and Pro Football Hall of Fame Game to kick off the preseason each year. Adults $25, seniors $21, children 6-12 $18, children under 6 free.
- 2 NCAA Hall of Champions, 700 W Washington St, Indianapolis (Westside of Downtown), ☏ . Tu–Sa 10AM–5PM, Su noon–5PM. This is the headquarters of the NCAA, in White River State Park. Explore the history of college athletics—from hockey to basketball, cross-country skiing to football. Check out a film about NCAA sports, and be sure to check out the spirit section. Gift shop. $5, $3 youth and seniors 60+, free for kids under 5.
- 3 College Football Hall of Fame, 250 Marietta St NW, Downtown Atlanta, Georgia, ☏ . Su-F 10AM-5PM, Sa 9AM-6PM. This 94,526-square-foot (8,781.8 m2) museum includes 50,000 square feet (4,600 m2) of exhibit space and a 45-yard football field dedicated to college football with memorabilia and interactive exhibits in downtown Atlanta. Adults $21.99, children 3-12 $17.99, children under 3 free, seniors and students $18.99.
- 4 Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Tim Hortons Field, 64 Melrose Ave. N., Hamilton, Ontario. W 9AM-noon, Sa 4–7PM (public). This 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) museum, located at the club level of Tim Hortons Field, explores the history of the Canadian code, featuring busts of all Hall of Fame members and a rotating collection of exhibits. The Hall also organizes traveling exhibits throughout Canada. In addition to the public hours, the museum is open on days of Hamilton Tiger-Cats home games; club-level ticket holders have access throughout the game, and the museum is opened to all other ticket holders 15 minutes after the final whistle (closing 1 hour after the game). Free.
Almost all top-flight football teams outside of North America employ some American talent in their top teams; if you're a former college player, you might have a chance to get paid playing football in Europe at usually around five hundred to several thousand euros per month, plus various benefits such as health insurance, a car or a free apartment for the duration of your stay with the team. Due to rules in some countries (notably Germany) limiting the number of foreign players and because EU legislation mandates EU citizens be treated equally to local nationals, you may be even more valuable and sought after if you have some dual nationality (e.g. Canadian and French). Most "import" players use their time in Europe traveling and you will likely have enough free time during weeks without a game or even in some cases between training days to explore both your host city and the near and far surroundings. Don't be surprised if you are asked to help train youth teams or represent the team at social events, particularly in small town teams. Import players are often "the face of the team" and are seen as an ambassador of sorts of both their home country and their team with a lot of curiosity, admiration but also skepticism coming your way. Teams or individuals that made bad experiences with previous imports may well be skeptical at first, but if you behave appropriately and give your all on the field, you will quickly find a new family with the team, its fans and management.
Many teams also rely on American coaches, so if you are a certified football coach or former player wishing to become a coach, you might find employment opportunities in this field.
A website that is dedicated to connecting coaches, teams and players is found here.