As we enter the first full weekend of the 2020 NFL season, there’s one interesting point of information that pretty much sums up almost 50 years of venue design: this will be the first time in league history that an NFL team has not played home games at a Major League Baseball ballpark.
Flash back to 1920, when the loosely organized American Professional Football Association (renamed the NFL in 1922) launched an inaugural season with 14 teams and an irregular schedule. Home fields were pretty much wherever teams could make a buck, ranging from high-school gridirons to what would become Minor League Baseball ballparks. In two cases, teams were set to play at an MLB ballpark: Due to weather and scheduling conflicts, the Detroit Heralds never did play a game at Navin Field, but the Cleveland Tigers did play four games at Dunn Field, the home of the Cleveland Indians later known as League Park. And that began a 100-year run of NFL teams playing out of MLB stadiums.
At the time college football ruled, with huge stadiums built around the box-office appeal of stars like Red Grange. College programs did not want to share their facilities with a fringe sport like pro football, so NFL’s leaders turned to MLB owners as they struggled to build an economic model. In the case of George Halas and the Chicago Bears, building pro football was a huge challenge when the University of Chicago Maroons, led by legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, drew large crowds on Saturdays. For Halas, the NFL economic model was pretty simple: play on Sunday when blue-collar workers had a day off, and partner with MLB teams for the use of their ballpark. For Halas and the Bears, the Wrigley Field lease negotiated with Cubs president William Veeck Sr. was pretty simple: the Cubs would keep 15 percent of the gate receipts and 100 percent of concessions revenue, with the Bears keeping 85 percent of the gate and all program revenue. That arrangement led to the Bears playing out of the Friendly Confines for almost 50 years. It also game cash-strapped NFL owners a chance to build a business: the MLB teams dealt with all the investments and logistics, and the only overhead costs for the NFL team were a small office and player/coaching contracts.
It also provided a blueprint for other NFL teams, who set up shop at MLB ballparks for extended periods: the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium; the Boston/Washington Braves/Redskins at Braves Field, Fenway Park and Griffith Stadium; the Pittsburgh Steelers at Forbes Field; the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park; the Philadelphia Eagles at Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium; the Detroit Lions at Tiger Stadium. The Green Bay Packers had Lambeau Field beginning in 1957, but they only played half their home games there for decades, operating on a split season in a Wisconsin State Fair grandstand and County Stadium.
The 1960s saw huge growth in NFL revenues, and with that rise came the financial wherewithal for NFL-only venues, first in New England and Kansas City. Since then, NFL teams have pursued their own facilities, and we now have reached a historic moment: This will be the first year in NFL history that a team did not share a venue with an MLB franchise, with the move of the Raiders from the Oakland Coliseum to Las Vegas. Yes, it only took a century, but a significant milestone nevertheless.