When Congress accidentally created the football weekend

Money, television and a Congressional act helped cue the rise of football weekends as we know them.

For millions of Americans, Sundays in the fall are signed away to watching hours of pro football games.

While pro football has become synonymous with any given Sunday, it wasn’t always so. 

In fact, some regular season NFL games were once played on Fridays and Saturdays — days which were traditionally devoted to high school and college football games, respectively.

So, how did NFL Sundays and football weekends as we know them come to be?

The answer involves television, money and Congress, and how they accidentally caused the rise of a major part of American culture.

Television turf

It’s the 1950s. By this point, football had been around for several decades, growing from an amateur sport played at a few colleges to a professional league with teams across the country.

As the sport grew, so did football fans’ appetites for watching the game.

To make sure fans were attending and watching their local teams’ games on TV, rather than televised games involving other teams, NFL teams decided to take matters into their own hands.

"Rather than selling the TV rights and letting the broadcaster decide in what markets to show NFL games in response to fans' interests, [the teams] were protecting their home markets," said Matthew Mitten, professor of law and the Executive Director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.

According to Mitten, when each NFL team or "club" entered the league, they received an exclusive territory of a 75-mile radius around a team’s city. Within that territory, they could sell the TV rights for their games.

"That was really designed to enable each club to maximize their revenues from live gate attendance and TV revenues," he added.

This is why a TV station in Philadelphia could show an Eagles home game, whereas an affiliate of that station based in Seattle could not (unless its team was playing the Eagles).

Building trust

In 1953, the NFL’s creation of exclusive broadcast territories was called into question.

According to Mitten, the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia found that the agreement among the NFL clubs to not televise games into each other’s home territory violated federal anti-trust laws. This agreement unlawfully reduced competition in the marketplace of television broadcasts.

"Federal anti-trust law is designed to benefit consumers and ensure a competitive marketplace, but the NFL believed it was necessary to protect the home markets and local revenue streams of its clubs to maintain on-field competitive balance," said Mitten.

The NFL clubs had made it so that their teams could collectively bargain with television networks. In doing so, the federal court believed they reduced competition in the marketplace of television broadcasts.

However, the NFL created competition elsewhere — with college teams.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) expressed concern that the NFL games and broadcasts competed with college football games, which were typically played on Saturdays.

While most NFL games were played on Sundays, they were sometimes played and televised on Fridays and Saturdays, as well. Mitten said, the NCAA believed Saturday NFL games attracted people to watch their favorite professional football team rather than their local college team.

At this point, the NFL’s practice of collectively selling television rights were contested in court. Plus, the NCAA believed that the NFL’s broadcast practices stepped on their Saturday turf.

To settle these disputes, Congress stepped in.

Any given Sunday. Just not Friday or Saturday.

In 1961, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act.

Among other things, the Act gave the NFL anti-trust immunity to collectively sell all clubs' television rights and to protect their home markets. However, a provision in the Act had certain conditions for this immunity.

"Congress carved out a window starting at 6 p.m. on Friday night that extended through Saturday evening, during which there is no anti-trust immunity for the NFL's collectively sold television rights," said Mitten.

"The anti-trust immunity doesn't apply to [NFL] games shown on Saturday because Congress wanted to protect the live attendance at college football games," Mitten added.

"And by beginning that window at 6 p.m. on Friday, it was essentially protecting the live gate attendance for high school football games, which traditionally are played on Friday nights."

This provision applies between the second Friday in September until the second Saturday in December, effectively creating a disincentive for the NFL to broadcast regular season games during Fridays and Saturdays when college and high school games are played. 

This then allowed the NFL to broadcast their playoff season games on both Saturdays and Sundays.

According to Mitten, the Sports Broadcasting Act does not technically prohibit the NFL from playing games on Friday night or on Saturdays. But if they do play during that time period, then the anti-trust immunity would not apply.

The incidental result was the NFL playing games only when they can broadcast them with anti-trust immunity – and that's virtually any time outside of 6 p.m. on Friday through Saturday evening.

"It has really led to over 50 years of this custom," said Mitten.

The gridiron tradition

The culture of football weekends is something many Americans know all too well.

They might plan their lives around whether they’ll find themselves under Friday night lights, join alumni to cheer on their old team or have friends come over on Sundays to watch "the game".

Even those who aren’t too keen on the sport end up getting caught in the wake and excitement of football weekends.

As the tendrils of pro football games crept into Mondays and Thursdays over the past few decades, the traditional football weekend has evolved into a long one — and one that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. 


Jon Kendle and Rich Derosier of the Pro Football Hall of Fame provided additional research for this story.