By the end of 2017 there will have been 21 NFL ‘international series’ games played in London and a further 2 in Mexico City. Since the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York giants at Wembley stadium in October 2007 we have seen a succession of sold out games. There is a definite appetite for these regular season contests, and why not? – They are a lot of fun after all.
These are not the first ‘international’ games though. I know what most UK based fans will be thinking now – they know – they were there for some of the earlier ones too. From 1986 to 1993 the ‘American Bowl’ brought a variety of teams to these shores for pre-season exhibition games and many of us, having only ever seen the NFL on TV up to that point loved those too. Exhibition games were played in Japan, Spain, Sweden, Mexico, Ireland and Australia as well as the UK.
Even these though are not the first ‘international series’ of games being referred to here. For that we have to go even further back to the 1940’s and the first recorded inter-league game between a Canadian and an American team.
In 1941 the Columbus Bullies of the AFL (the third league to set up under that name) took on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers later, of the CFL, and became the first of only two major league American football teams to have ever lost to a current CFL team. Columbus responded, however, by defeating Winnipeg twice in the next two games of the three game series. In fact, Winnipeg would only score 1 point in the remaining two games.
These games are not mentioned in the NFL record and fact book section on international series games, but the next ones are – hence making them ‘international series’ games! Of particular note was the fact that these inter-league contests were played under two sets of rules – CFL for the first half and NFL for the second.
No further cross border games occurred until 1950 & 1951 when the Ottawa Rough Riders twice hosted the New York Giants losing both games, 27-6 and 41-18 respectively. Perhaps predictably, the Rough Riders performed better in the first half of these games under the CFL rules! (A report on the game can be found here http://www.ottawaredblacks.com/2014/04/17/throwback-thursday-1950-ottawa-rough-riders-vs-ny-giants/)
Again, there was a gap before any more inter-league exhibition games were played. The next five were played between 1959 and 1961, with three of them featuring the Toronto Argonauts. The Argos took on the Chicago Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Cardinals losing pretty heftily each time. Mind you, the 1959 match-up with the Cardinals did attract a crowd of 27,700 fans – a fantastic turnout at that time. In fact the congestion caused by the game was front page news the following day!
Despite losing the opening match 55-26, Toronto jumped out to a quick lead. It all came apart as they were worn down by the bigger Cardinal linemen and lost key players to injury. They also lost players to injury in the exhibition game against the Steelers and some were quick to question the wisdom of these games that were damaging the Argonauts roster. (Another 23,000 + crowd watched this game – the CFL teams may have lost the games and players to injury but they were doing good box office!)
As well as the game featuring the Argonauts, in 1961 the Montreal Alouettes hosted the Chicago Bears, losing by a score of 34-16. Once again, the first half was played under CFL rules, and the second by NFL regulations the CFL team was much more competitive early on in the contest. The Alouettes led 9-7 before a scoring run of 27 unanswered points from Chicago, who also dominated the second half while playing under NFL rules. The biggest talking point of the game however was a bench clearing brawl, ignited by a late hit from one of the Als players on the Bears tackle Stan Fanning, that saw four players ejected for fighting.
Those four games all featured NFL teams, whilst also in 1961, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats took on the Buffalo Bills of the AFL (this being the fourth and ultimately most successful iteration of a league by that name). The Bills became the only AFL (or NFL) team to lose to a current CFL team, and it was the last game between the CFL and AFL/NFL teams. Yet again the CFL team flourished the most, entirely predictably under the CFL rules in the first half, leading by scores of 8-0 and 28-8 before the Bills really came to life. 12,000 fans turned out for this one, which was still a decent crowd but lower than the NFL stars drew.
It is surely worth noting that these games took place in August or September – making them pre-season matches for the American teams. They may have been exhibition matches, but for the CFL teams they came mid-season and this can only have been disruptive to their seasons – particularly in Toronto’s case with the injuries they sustained.
There is no doubt we will enjoy this year’s upcoming slate of ‘international games’ but let’s not forget the story of some of the earliest ‘international’ games played cross border between Canadian and American based teams. They too provided a spectacle and entertainment in their own era.
It remains highly unlikely that we shall see the likes of these cross league contests again however. Scheduling would be an issue, and the concept of more games and the potential for more injuries undermining the business of their own league seasons would doubtless not sit comfortably with either CFL or NFL fans.
Pic: Tom Bochsler