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. Initially, 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 in recent decades 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 across 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).
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 with the ball enters the end zone or catches the ball inside the end zone. Unlike 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). A very rare drop kick can also be attempted when the ball hits the ground and is then kicked through the goalposts—only one has been performed in NFL football since 1941. 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, and are worth three points. Least commonly, the defense can score a two-point safety if the opposing offense is brought down within their own end zone.
Fouls, or penalties, are signaled through yellow flags 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.
Going to a game
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 hundreds 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 16 games—split evenly between home and road—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 first Sunday of February. The regular season lasts 17 weeks in total, with each team playing 16 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. Note that 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 in 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.)
Below is a list of all NFL teams ordered by conference and division as of the upcoming 2018 season and their current home venues:
- Buffalo Bills, 1 New Era Field, Orchard Park, New York – The Bills are noted for two things: undyingly loyal fans and The Drought—a stretch of eighteen straight seasons without appearing in the playoffs, which finally ended in 2017 when they earned a postseason berth by the skin of their teeth. (They haven't won a playoff game since '95, though.) The Bills also earned the distinction of being the only team to make it to four consecutive Super Bowls, which they did in the early 90s; they lost all of them, however. This stadium can get bitterly cold and covered in snow during winter months. Note that games are almost never stopped or delayed due to weather.
- 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 in recent years 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 – One of the most successful franchises in the NFL, the Patriots have enjoyed an unprecedented level of success in the last couple of decades under quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, making regular playoff appearances and advancing to several Super Bowls. 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 proved 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 Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati – After years of frustration, the Bengals have recently found new fire, 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!" Incidentally, their stadium bears the namesake of the Cleveland Browns, as the same man was instrumental in the history of both Ohio teams.
- Cleveland Browns, 7 FirstEnergy 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). This hasn'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 Heinz Field, 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 hold 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 currently the only team that has never played in a conference championship. 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 recent years, 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 has continued under successor quarterback Andrew Luck.
- Jacksonville Jaguars, 11 EverBank Field, 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 currently 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 Sports Authority 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 – Though lacking in on-field success, 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 rather 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 currently hold the record at 142.2 decibels, beyond the threshold of human pain.
- Los Angeles Chargers, 15 StubHub Center, Carson, 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. They are playing in the StubHub Center in the suburb of Carson until a new stadium in suburban Inglewood opens in 2020, which they will 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.
- Oakland Raiders, 16 Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland – 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 both Oakland, Los Angeles, and then Oakland again, they have entered a severe decline in recent years and are preparing for yet another move, this time to Las Vegas. The team's merchandise is iconic and widespread and can be found far away from Oakland, where they will remain until their move to Vegas, scheduled for 2020. If you catch them in the Bay Area, they will be at the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, which is the smallest and one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL and the last to be shared with Major League Baseball.
- 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 new 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 fiercely loved or hated by most people who care for football, with fans often accused of jumping on the bandwagon in the Cowboys' successful times.
- 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 fiercely loyal to their football team, who are noted for their heated rivalry with the Giants. They 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 Redskins, 20 FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland – Despite increasing pressure to change their name, which is seen as blatantly racist and offensive by many indigenous Americans, the team's owner has flatly refused. In recent years they have found themselves at the bottom of 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.
- 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.
- 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 now 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 Mercedes-Benz 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 fierce competitors in recent years. 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 – 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 University of Phoenix 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 recent playoff success, but also hold the longest championship drought in football, with their last championship won in 1947. The stadium does not host a college team but is named for sponsorship reasons.
- Los Angeles Rams, 30 Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles (in Exposition Park, at the northern edge of South Central) – The Rams, which returned to Los Angeles in 2016 after 21 seasons in St. Louis, last saw major success during their incredible runs 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 show they give on the turf has come back to normal levels since, however. The Rams actually started their life in Cleveland, and became the first NFL team on the West Coast in 1946. Owner Stan Kroenke received approval from the league's owners to move to L.A. for the 2016 season. The Rams play in the mammoth L.A. Coliseum (home to the extremely popular college team USC Trojans, as well two past Olympic Games in 1932 and 1984 and one upcoming Olympics in 2028) until a new stadium in suburban Inglewood opens in 2020. They'll share the stadium with the Chargers.
- San Francisco 49ers, 31 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.
- Seattle Seahawks, 32 CenturyLink Field, Seattle (in Sodo) – The Seahawks have had considerable success recently (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 is a set of regular season games that take place outside the United States, currently the only NFL matches that do so. The International Series premiered in 2007 and has been regularly held in North London's 33 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 will further expand to four for 2017. 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.
Once the schedule for each season is set, as per the North American convention, the designated "home" team will be mentioned second. Games will be held in the following venues in London:
- At least two games each season at Wembley Stadium through 2020.
- A total of at least three games at 34 Twickenham Stadium, site of rugby union games of the English national team, from 2016–2018.
- At least two games each season at the new stadium being built by Tottenham Hotspur of soccer's Premier League from 2018–2027.
Dates and sites for the 2018 London games are expected to be announced when the NFL releases its 2018 schedule in April.
Other NFL games outside the US
While some NFL games (both exhibition and regular season) have been held in Canada, Mexico or other places outside of the US in the past, this was not the case in recent years. However, a game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders (the designated home team) was held at Mexico City's 35 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 NFL is now considering playing a game in China to start the 2019 season, which will be the league's 100th.
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. Recent years have brought significant 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 first Sunday after a Monday in February. The next events are scheduled to be:
- Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (home of the Atlanta Falcons) on 3 February 2019
- Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida (home of the Miami Dolphins) on 2 February 2020
- Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida (home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) on 7 February 2021
- Super Bowl LVI at Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California (future home of the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams) on 6 February 2022
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 it was changed to Florida for 2017. 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. 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 small schools never compete against large 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.
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.
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 recent developments have restructured the post-season 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. 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 2023 season (with the title game being played early in the next calendar year):
- 2019: Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California (home of the San Francisco 49ers), 7 January
- 2020: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana (home of the New Orleans Saints), 13 January
- 2021: Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida (home of the Miami Dolphins), 11 January
- 2022: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana (home of the Indianapolis Colts), 10 January
- 2023: Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California (future home of the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams), 9 January
- 2024: NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas (home of the Houston Texans), 8 January
Bowl games are huge events, so tickets may be expensive and hard to come by.
The lower divisions of college football each play a traditional single-elimination tournament, just like all other NCAA sports.
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.
Canadian Football League
The Canadian Football League or CFL is the second professional league of the sport, albeit with significantly different rules (three downs instead of four, more players etc.) and larger playing fields (110 yards (100 m) long + two 20 yards (18 m) end zones, and 65 yards (59 m) wide), which cause football to be more of a passing game in Canada than the United States. 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.
While the level of play was comparable prior to the advent of television, the CFL is nowadays often regarded as a lesser league in comparison to the NFL, due to—among other things—lower salaries, attendance figures and TV ratings. For three disastrous seasons in the mid-1990s, the CFL experimented with fielding U.S. teams; besides the odd result of Baltimore (then without an NFL franchise) becoming Canadian champion once, it hasn't left too big of a mark upon the league. For that matter, the NFL is very popular in Canada. However, 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.
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, 36 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 Canadians). 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!)
- Montreal Alouettes, 37 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, 38 TD Place Stadium, Ottawa – Although they are technically the newest addition to the league—having first taken the field in 2014—Ottawa's original team was a founding member of the CFL and played for 120 seasons. (The new franchise is named after color scheme of the old Ottawa 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 and their historic field which has been in operation for a variety of sports events since the 1870s hosted the 105th Grey Cup on November 26, 2017 in a special ceremony recognizing 150 years of Canadian confederation.
- Toronto Argonauts, 39 BMO Field, Toronto (in Harbourfront) – Founded in 1873, the Argonauts have racked up a record 17 championships, including the 100th Grey Cup in 2012 and the 105th in 2017. 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, 40 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 nestled on the water of False Creek also hosts Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps FC, an annual rugby tournament, and a provincial sports hall of fame.
- Calgary Stampeders, 41 McMahon Stadium, Calgary – One quirk of this long-standing franchise is that their fans will bring actual horses into hotels on the day of the Grey Cup whether or not their team makes it to the end of the post-season (their most recent trip was in 2017). This bizarre tradition dates back 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.
- Edmonton Eskimos, 42 Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton (in Central Edmonton) – Possibly the most successful team in CFL history, the Eskimos have lost some of their competitiveness in recent years but have still racked up 14 Grey Cups, including an unprecedented streak of five in the 1980s. 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, 43 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 colors 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, 44 Investors Group Field, Winnipeg – The Blue Bombers have had a long Grey Cup drought and substantial administrative turn-over for the past 25 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 may be down for now but they're not out for good.
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 or relocating. 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 is the indoor Arena Football League, that plays on a shorter field with modified rules to adapt to the indoor environment. In both attendance and quality of play, the Arena Football League is the most "major" of the minor leagues and some players (notably Kurt Warner) have 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 tend to be fewer in number but more diehard. There's also less pageantry incorporated into the games, but concession and merchandise are much more affordable. Note that if you are in the front lines, you will be immediately next to the field of play as well. An AFL game may be a cheaper and more exciting option for someone who isn't accustomed to gridiron football. The League has had substantial difficulties lately, with a dozen teams folding since 2014. The current line-up is only five teams (two of which are brand new), mostly located in a small cluster on the East Coast: the Baltimore Brigade, Cleveland Gladiators, Philadelphia Soul, Tampa Bay Storm, and Washington (DC) Valor. Plans to expand into New Jersey and New York were announced in 2017. Games are played April through August, so as to not compete directly with the NFL and NCAA.
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. There are even women's football matches, although these are rare. Expect these other leagues to play on high school or university fields.
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 North America
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. More recently, Mexico launched a fully professional league in 2016, initially with four teams in Mexico City but with plans to expand both in numbers and geographic reach in the coming years. 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 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.
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 presently 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, located 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, too! $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.
Almost all 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. Import players are often "the face of the team" and be advised that you will be seen as an ambassador of sorts of both your home country and your 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.