American football

An NFL football stadium

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.

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 football. 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. 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 DC 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.

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.

Each game begins with a coin toss to determine which team will initially possess the ball


The following is a brief overview of the basics of American football, as played in the NFL:

Football is played by two teams of 11 players 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 ten yards. 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 ten yards have been achieved a new set of four downs starts. If a net distance of ten yards has not been achieved after four downs, the offense must turn the ball over to the other team.

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).

The line of scrimmage at the start of play

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. 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 through carrying it forward ("running with it") 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 through 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.

A player scores a leaping touchdown

Scoring is done through one of three means. A touchdown happens 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-and-a-half yard line) or a single point by touchdown kick (which is similar to a field goal). As the kick is by far the preferred option and has a success rate well over 99% (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. Lastly, 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 weighted 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 fifteen minutes each, although each team is allowed a limited number of timeouts to briefly stop the clock. 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 in play, 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.

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" (a week without a game), 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.

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 2015–16 season and their current home venues:

AFC East

AFC North

Steelers fans waving "terrible towels"

AFC South

AFC West

The "Black Hole" of Raiders fans

NFC East

NFC North

A cheeseheaded Packers fan

NFC South

The Buccaneers' pirate ship

NFC West

NFL International Series

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 continuously held in North London's   Wembley Stadium. Originally a once-a-year event, the series has since expanded to three games a season. 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.

Wembley Stadium decorated for the International Series

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:

For the 2016 Season, games are scheduled to be:

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, for 2016 a game is scheduled in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders (the designated home team) on the evening of Monday, November 21 2016. Whether the NFL is going to make this into a regular fixture or not will likely depend on the success of this game among other factors.

Super 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. 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, although the exact date might still change. The next events are scheduled to be:

College football

Cheerleaders at a college football match

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 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.

Regular season

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, 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.

Bowl games and the College Football Playoff

Dancers at the Rose Parade

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 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. The next four sites for the championship game have been announced:

Bowl games are huge events, so tickets may be expensive and hard to come by.

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 long + two 20-yard end zones, and 65 yards 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 US side of the border. 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. In the 1990s the CFL made an unsuccessful attempt to expand southward. This proved futile, and 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. 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 runs roughly June-November with each team playing 18 games and getting two bye weeks (weeks without a game). The championship game, the Grey Cup is usually played in late November.

East Division

West Division


Tailgating is a tradition that arose from fans arriving well before the game and having a cookout (and typically beer) at the parking lot while discussing the upcoming game and football in general. Some teams have now formalized this with "official" tailgating parties at least for important games.

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 several seasons on short notice due to economic problems. Some minor leagues play a spring schedule to avoid competition with the NFL's fall schedule.

Arena football

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.

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 or in fact entire leagues have folded before ever playing a single down of Football.

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.

Other football sites

Pro Football Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio.

Other football competitions

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.

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 (third overall). The next European championship is scheduled to be held in Germany in 2018 with games planned to be held in Dresden, Frankfurt and Berlin.

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 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 2016 season the participating teams are planned to be: Vienna Vikings, Tirol Raiders (from Innsbruck), Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, New Yorker Lions (from Braunschweig), the Berlin Adler, and the Aix-en-Provence Argonauts. In 2015 Braunschweig beat Schwäbisch Hall in the final which was held in Braunschweig. The same two teams also met for the German Bowl where Braunschweig once more beat Schwäbisch Hall to become German and European Champion.


Almost all football teams outside of North America employ some American talent in their top teams, and if you are a (former) college football player, you might have a chance to get paid playing football in Europe at usually around €500 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 "American" players (this can include Canadians, Mexicans and Japanese among others) but not European ones, you may be even more valuable and sought after if you have some dual nationality (e.g. Canadian and French).

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.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, March 13, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.