“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.”
― Terry Pratchett
Before we talk about the popularity of American football worldwide, we need to discuss the history of the sport. The term “American football” refers to a type of game, not a regional sport. American football is enjoyed world-wide.
A comparison between American football, soccer and rugby is only possible because of their shared origins and similar game concepts. Along with Canadian football, rugby league is the most similar sport to American football. Both sports involve the concept of a limited number of downs/tackles and scoring touchdowns/tries takes clear precedence over goal-kicking.
Modern American football evolved from an ancient sport that may have originated thousands of years ago. American football and association football may not resemble each other much today, but they both originated from the sport of “football,” a somewhat disorganized game that involved men running around a field with a ball. Preferences for style of play fragmented the sport into rugby, association football, and American football.
In the early 19th century America’s school kids played a game mostly resembling soccer, but the rules they used did allow some handling of the ball. Canadians introduced rugby to the United States in 1871, and it quickly became much more popular than soccer.
The most popular sport in the US may be American football, but the most popular sport in the world is association football, which Americans call “soccer.” The kicker? As different as they seem today, these sports share a linked heritage.
The English royalty outlawed “football” and “handball” between 1314-1667. In the early 1800s, the sport began to factionalize in England between those who preferred to handle the ball with hands and those who did not. The former became known as rugby football, the latter becoming association football (in reference to the associations that collaborated to play the sport). “Soccer,” a convenient abbreviation for “association,” began as a European term. When soccer became more popular in Europe than rugby football, the terminology was dropped, while it stuck in the US, where football more commonly referred to American football.
Rugby is best described as a blend of the contact of American football, the running of soccer, and the transition of basketball.
In the early days football, like soccer, only allowed 3 substitutions and once a player left the game, he could not return. Players had to play offense and defense, and helmets were optional until 1939. From 1941-1952 college teams were allowed unlimited substitutions. The rule changed back to one platoon until 1964 when unlimited substitutions were once again allowed. The NFL legalized unlimited substitutions in 1950. Modern day substitution allows for more specialization. Modern players are bigger, stronger, and faster, but these old school players must have had the edge in stamina.
Also, Rugby is a game which has changed dramatically over the course of the last two decades or so with the recent World Cup demonstrating just how far the sport has come since the amateur era. Players now are bigger, better and faster than ever before with training, strength programmes and better nutrition meaning those who take to the field are now in the peak of physical condition.
So after much analysis, football in America didn’t look too different from soccer and rugby before they split; players brutally fought to get the ball past the opposing team by any means necessary. The ball was even round.
American football grew through competition between colleges. As more colleges collaborated to play the sport, the rules developed more into what we recognize today. The game began to look more similar to rugby than it did association football, but for reasons not entirely clear, Americans continued to brand it as football.
By the turn of the 20th century, association football, rugby football, and American football—originating as variations of the same game—had become distinct and incompatible. “Football” might seem like a misnomer for the American sport today, but the historical game involved plenty of kicking.