What if the Colts-Giants game had not been such a classic?

In our What If scenario, we ask: Just how big was the impact of the 1958 NFL Championship Game on the sport's popularity?

Originally Published: February 1, 2007
ESPN.com

The NFL staff has identified plays or events that may have altered the course of history. Each Tuesday and Saturday throughout the offseason, we will be tackling a different scenario and speculate on how things might have gone differently.

As the world's most lucrative sports league, with annual revenues that tower over its three main North American rivals, the NFL is truly in a league of its own. While visionaries like Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue deserve plenty of credit, the immense popularity of the NFL is often traced back to one Sunday afternoon, ironically enough, at Yankee Stadium.

Alan Ameche
AP PhotoThe 1958 NFL Championship made national celebrities out of John Unitas, Frank Gifford and others.

Formed in 1920, the NFL was hardly a major league in its early years. The arrival of college stars such as Red Grange, and the institution of an annual championship game (1933), caused a slight increase in popularity, but professional football still lagged far behind baseball.

Everything changed on December 28, 1958, when the Baltimore Colts met the New York Giants for the NFL championship. Behind two rushing touchdowns from Alan Ameche, the Colts outlasted the Giants, 23-17, in the first NFL game to go into overtime. The game has since become widely known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played".

As the NFL had embraced television, the Colts-Giants matchup was televised across the nation by NBC and drew record TV viewership. By the mid-'60s, professional football had surpassed baseball as Americans' favorite spectator sport in some surveys, and in the 1970s and '80s, the NFL solidified its dominance.

Perhaps the rise of the league was simply an eventuality, but many sports writers and fans mark this game as the beginning of it all, raising the interesting question: What if the Colts-Giants game had not been such as classic? Would football still be king? If so, how much longer might it have taken for the NFL to take off?

-- David Mosse

Mailbag: What if the Colts-Giants game had not been such a classic? Send in your comments and we will post some of the best responses.

WHAT YOU'RE SAYING

Brad, Salinas, CA: I had turned 12 on Christmas day. Loved playing football. Turned the TV on(black and white of course) and saw Johnny Unitas and the guys playing the Giants. Changed my life. Born in Colorado, the Broncos became my team from the first year when they had the uniforms of Southwest Texas State, orange stripes running up and down their legs. Now 60, still love it all one hundred percent!

Steve, Birmingham, AL: I would think that, with this game not such a classic, it would have been easier for the AFL to gain a foothold and therefore force a merger much sooner than it happened. In the end though, if not this game, another game would have come along to spring the NFL to the popularity it currently has.

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