With all of the hoopla leading up to the Super Bowl, it is hard to imagine that NFL football was not always as popular of a drawing card as it is today.
When we were growing up, football was an extremely popular spectator sport that drew literally millions of fans each weekend, but it was the high schools and college teams that filled stadiums each fall weekend in the 40s and 50s – not the pros.
Until the late 1950s when the NFL entered into a contract with CBS to telecast NFL games on a national basis, professional football had a very limited number of fans. Until the late 50s, the NFL, despite the CBS TV contract, competed with the college for fans and attendees in an extremely limited number of markets* leaving most of the country dependent on high school or local college teams for live, local football action.
Indeed, in most of the markets where the pro teams did play, the local college teams consistently out drew the pros on those weekends when both played at home. In the Philadelphia area, where we grew up, college teams playing within 50 miles of the city would often draw a total of over 300,000 fans on those frequent weekends when both Penn and Villanova played home games. The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) although a member of Ivy League played only one (or at the most two) league games each season. Instead, Penn played a schedule that had them on most Saturdays playing home games against Big 10 powerhouses like Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin or Pac 10 rivals such as Cal, USC, Stanford and UCLA. Every year they also played nationally ranked Army and Navy at home and some years hosted the perennially #1 ranked Fighting Irish from Notre Dame. With that type of schedule, Penn who was highly competitive and often had nationally ranked teams had no difficulty attracting fans and filling the on campus Franklin Field to the stadium’s capacity of 78,000 fans on every Saturday afternoon that they played there
Villanova, a much smaller school, through a unique arrangement with a local super market chain, would regularly draw 100,000 plus fans to their games at South Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium on the same evening that Penn had played before close to 80,000 fans that afternoon less two miles away. These games were dubbed the “Grocery Bowls” and usually pitted Villanova against SEC or Southwest Conference teams such as Georgia, Alabama, Florida State, Texas, Baylor and Texas A&M. Unfortunately, Villanova at that time had an enrollment of less than 5,000 students. Despite being competitive, it was usually no match for most of these nationally ranked powerhouses, but over 100,000 locals would turn out each week for these games and to see Villanova reek out so called moral victories over schools with enrollments often ten times that of theirs.
While Penn and Villanova were playing major top notched teams before record crowds each week, at the same time many smaller local colleges within a 50 mile radius of Philadelphia (including Princeton, Temple, Drexel, Penna. Military College, the University of Delaware, West Chester, Haverford, Swarthmore, Lehigh, Lafayette and Ursinis) were each drawing between five, ten and twenty thousand alumni and friends to each of their on-campus home games.
At the same time that the Philadelphia area colleges were drawing an aggregate of more than a quarter million fans to their games each Saturday, the local pro team was drawing less than 10% of that number to their home games. The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles played their home games, on Sundays, at dilapidated Shibe Park (which was also home to both the A’s and Phillies baseball clubs) in a tough industrial area of the city. Despite having championship teams in the late 1940s and a host of marquee players in the 50s, the Eagles on most Sundays would draw only 15 to 20 thousand fans to their North Philadelphia home games. It wasn’t until Penn downgraded their football program and resumed playing mostly Ivy League rivals, the novelty of Villanova’s Grocery Bowls wore off and became a thing of the past and until the Eagles moved to Franklin Field (in 1958) that the pros became competive, attendance wise, with the local Philadelphia college teams.
This phenomenon of college and local high school teams, out drawing NFL teams in many areas of the country continues until this day. Witness the Midwest where the University of Michigan, Northwestern and Notre Dame each consistently out draw the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. And at this time, Los Angeles (the 2nd largest city in the U.S.) does not even have an NFL team to compete for fans with USC or UCLA.
So when you watch the Super Bowl, just keep in mind that there was once a time (not too long ago) when the bigger college teams out drew the pros each weekend. To this day, the colleges still out draw the NFL in total attendance weekend after weekend.
* 1947 NFL Teams:
New York Giants
Green Bay Packers
Los Angeles Rams
Pat & Frank Fleming