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The origin and evolution of the NFL Kickoff

Veteran league executive Jim Steeg outlines the history of the NFL Kickoff weekend.

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

It was the spring of 2002 and NFL executives were thinking about how to enhance the Kickoff weekend of the upcoming season. Prior to this, adding banners and field markings had been the emphasis. John Madden was urging the league to emphasize the openers the way Major League Baseball did. There was a romance to the opening of baseball season that football lacked.

For a number of years, the NFL had avoided opening on Labor Day weekend, primarily at the suggestion of television networks unhappy with the ratings aside from those on Monday night. This also meant the Super Bowl would permanently be in February, something that had happened for the first time that year with Super Bowl XXXVI. Labor Day weekend has now become the traditional opener for NCAA football.

At the same time, the NFL had a history of not playing on the Sunday night of the second game of the World Series. In the preceding years, the NFL had played a Thursday night game prior to the World Series opener, which was traditionally on Saturday

The NFL had a history dating back to the All-American Conference in 1950 of opening the season with defending champions. ABC’s “Monday Night Football” had featured the defending Super Bowl champions 14 times on opening weekend.

The executives devised a plan to create a celebration along with the opening game on the Thursday night of the first weekend. The plan involved the game as the centerpiece, but combined it with entertainment that could be shown not only on the network broadcasting the game, but also on other networks. The logical site was New York City because the opening weekend for the NFL was Sept. 5-9, almost one year after the 9/11 tragedy.

The ambitious plan developed in less than six months. It involved closing Times Square in conjunction with the City of New York; convincing ESPN, MTV and VH1 that the programming was viable; developing packages to raise over $6 million in sponsorships; selling the idea to talent (Bon Jovi, Eve, Alicia Keys, Enrique Iglesias and the cast of Rent agreed to participate); working through security issues; obtaining support from the Broadway community to coordinate all the video boards in Times Square; creating a fashion show to promote new NFL product lines; and, finally, convincing the ultra-conservative New York Giants to embrace the activities.

The event was a tremendous success and was credited by Bloomberg with increasing NFL sponsorship revenue by $1.9 billion over the next 14 months. It was estimated that over 100,000 people filled 10-plus blocks from 44th to 54th streets on Broadway and 7th avenues, starting at 4:30 p.m. and lasting till 9 p.m. In excess of 10 million viewers tuned in to the broadcasts.

The following year, ABC bid for the rights to the Thursday opener as part of the Monday night package. This was accomplished by eliminating the last Monday night game in Week 17. The Kickoff was held in Washington, D.C. with the closing of the Washington Mall. The musical entertainment included Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears and Aretha Franklin. Only three weeks after the event, the U.S. Senate enacted a law limiting displays of commercial sponsorship on the Mall.

Starting in 2004, the decision was made to move the event to the city and stadium of defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots with celebrations throughout Boston. It also involved a concert at the site of the upcoming Super Bowl. Kickoff remained on ABC until NBC obtained the rights to Sunday night football in 2006. The game has been held on Thursday night, hosted by the defending Super Bowl Champion, with minor changes – the start time was moved in 2008 to not compete with the Republican Convention; in 2012 it was moved to Wednesday to avoid conflict with Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Democratic Convention; and, last year, a conflict with the Baltimore Orioles caused the opening game to be played in Denver instead of Baltimore. The kickoff concert was still broadcast from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The broadcasts of the Kickoff events grew in viewership in 2003 to 19 million and have drawn as many as 27 million viewers in recent years.

In 2006 the NFL decided to add to the opening weekend by adding a doubleheader game on Monday night. That first doubleheader game featured the Minnesota Vikings at the Washington Redskins followed by San Diego Chargers at the Oakland Raiders.

This year, the NFL Kickoff weekend will commence on Thursday Sept. 4 in Seattle, continuing with 11 games Sunday and concluding with a doubleheader Monday, once again featuring the Chargers.

As John Madden envisioned, opening weekend for the NFL season has become a tradition and must-see entertainment.

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Jim Steeg has been involved in sports administration for 40 years including 26 as Senior Vice President of the NFL’s Special Events Department, 4 as Business Manager of the Miami Dolphins and 6 as Chief Operating Officer of the San Diego Chargers. He has consulted and advised professional and collegiate entities on operations, fan enhancement, physical structure, capital investments, organizational structure, marketing programs and special event plans.

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