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History of Indoor Pro Football: The Connection to Titans/Oilers

Tennessee Titans were once the Houston Oilers, who started it all

Cleveland Browns v Houston Oilers
General interior view of the halftime show during an NFL game between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers on December 16, 1984 at the AstroDome in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Trevor Jones/Getty Images

Traditionalists and purists of professional football despise domed stadiums. They don’t see why a team needs to be indoors to play a rugged outdoor sport.

Football is a game of guts, dirt, muscle, finesse, grime, strategy and the elements of the weather. And old-school fans reason it should remain that way — just on outdoor gridirons.

But what fan wants to sit in the stands on a snow-flurried day and become encased in pasty for three hours? How many folks want to sit in sweltering hot weather for a noon kickoff? What owner is content with a partial crowd on any given Sunday simply because Mother Nature doesn’t have a pocket schedule?

As a society, we depend on air conditioned climates and heated environments. Indoor stadiums in the sporting world appear more of today’s necessity rather than yesterday’s luxury.

Certainly the NFL fan base enjoys an indoor game. The players? They love a climate-controlled atmosphere as well. Which players want to play a game outdoors in September’s scorching heat down in Miami or on the frozen tundra of Green Bay in late December?

The “NFL Championship Game” was once what the title game was called before the moniker “Super Bowl” became the new name for the entitlement of the NFL. Instead of neutral locations, the championship game was always played at the home stadium of one of the two clubs that was in the title game—primarily because of gate receipts. But there were problems with this format. For many years, Washington, D.C. was the southernmost franchise. So games scheduled in Northern or Midwestern states in December were played where the weather often played havoc on title gameday.

The 1945 “NFL Championship Game” is an excellent example of horrid conditions. The hometown Cleveland Rams were up against the Washington Redskins in Cleveland Municipal Stadium which held 81,000 for football. The Rams were expecting a large turnout—and subsequent payday. In the days leading up to the game, however, 18 inches of snow descended upon the city. To keep the turf from freezing, 9,000 bales of hay were brought in to cover the field. The game would become the coldest title game up to that time with a temperature of -8°F. Only 32,178 fans braved the elements to see the Rams capture a 15-14 victory and become NFL Champions.

And so it was for the NFL season year-after-year. Teams played in the elements whether the crowds filled the seats or not.

In today’s NFL, various teams have constructed indoor domed stadiums which eliminate the stress of the outside world. This has made a peaceful, tranquil setting just right for the players, stadium employees, referees and everyone who has secured a ticket.

Early indoor venues

The first football game to be played indoors was in 1902 at Madison Square Gardens in New York City. Played on a 70-yard by 35-yard field, these contests were billed as the “World Series of Pro Football”. Poor attendance shut down the experiment the following season.

Then in 1930 the city of Atlantic City, New Jersey built a regulation-sized football field inside the Atlantic City Convention Center. Three games a year were played indoors until 1940. The playing surface in the earlier years consisted of natural grass sod that was grown outside and then moved indoors for the game. From 1961 until 1973, this indoor facility was home to the “Boardwalk Bowl”, a post-season game involving small college teams. The “Liberty Bowl” played in the Convention Center in 1964 before its relocation to Memphis.

At the conclusion of the 1932 season, the NFL standings had a tie for first place between the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans. The league scheduled a special championship playoff game to determine the NFL champion. The game was set to be played at Wrigley Field, the Bears’ home stadium, but because of severe blizzards and sub-zero wind chill throughout the week, the game was moved to Chicago Stadium--an indoor arena and home to the hockey Blackhawks. The dirt field was a mere 80-yards long by 40-yards wide as the sidelines were right against the stands.

In December 1935, a college game was staged at the Boston Gardens between Harvard and the Notre Dame Alumni All-Stars. The field was a mere 70-yards long by 30-yards wide. As the game progressed, the field became almost unplayable as the surface resembled wet sand, which eliminated the running game. The contest was advertised that certain Notre Dame stars would participate. When the 10,000 paid fans realized that none of the stars were in uniform, they became unruly and vocal. At halftime, the players demanded to be paid. Into the third quarter, the crowd developed into an angry mob. To make things worse, the dirt field shifted and unearthed the previous Garden tenant—the rodeo. The foul stench emitted only made conditions worse.

The first step to huge indoor stadiums occurred in 1965 with the opening of the world’s first domed sports stadium--the Houston Astrodome. The Houston Oilers, a charter member of the American Football League and now called the Tennessee Titans, began playing indoors in 1968. The field featured a new type of artificial grass called “ChemGrass” later known as “AstroTurf”.

The splendor of the Oilers playing in the Astrodome was that suddenly the outdoor game in all its glory could now be played indoors under climate-controlled circumstances. Rain, heat, fog, cold, humidity, lightning and fan discomfort were all aspects that a patron could simply ignore when making a decision whether to attend a game.

“Suddenly, weather was no longer a factor in any game after the Astrodome came into play,” said Stephen Evans, Chief Operating Officer of the Dallas Vigilantes of the Arena Football League from 2010-2011. “This also led to synthetic playing surfaces in outdoor stadiums that college and NFL teams take advantage of today.”

The Astrodome blazed a trail for other NFL teams to follow in the upcoming years. The Superdome and Silverdome opened in 1975 in New Orleans and Pontiac, Michigan, respectively.

With the Oakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas to play in the spectacle named Allegiant Stadium and both the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers set to play in Carson Stadium next season, 14 domed stadiums will be the home of NFL clubs.

A football version made for indoors

However, it is not truly “indoor football” because the game played in domed stadiums is identical to that played in outdoor stadiums. The rules of indoor football are specifically designed to allow for play in a smaller area which would normally be used for a sport such as hockey or basketball.

Authentic “indoor football” actually began on the back of an envelope.

Jim Foster was a former executive in the NFL. While watching an indoor soccer All-Star game in the early 1980s, he drew out a plan on a manila envelope for the game of football to be played indoors --with variations. His idea was shelved while he was an executive in the upstart United States Football League from 1983-1985. When the USFL folded, Foster decided to revisit his indoor game concept.

In 1986, an exhibition game was played in Rockford, IL with college and free-agent players recruited to fill rosters. After the makeshift Miami Vice defeated the Chicago Politicians 30-18, a second test game was played in Chicago with highlights shown on SportsCenter. The following year, a four-team “test league” was established with a 13-game season with ESPN signed on to broadcast games. Foster labeled his indoor football the “Arena Football League”.

“All of us in the AFL were so very fortunate to be part of the great sport of football, and the league created by Jim Foster,” said Jerry Kurz, former commissioner of the Arena Football League from 2010-2014.

The AFL’s field was designed to fit a hockey rink with the season to begin once hockey ceased. Foster placed only eight men on the playing surface and except for quarterbacks and kickers, players competed both ways on offense and defense duly labeled “Ironman Football”. This had the advantageous effect of limiting team payrolls and roster sizes.

Nets were suspended at each end of the end zones with a smallish opening for field goals. Any kickoff, pass or missed field goal attempt which rebounded off the net was deemed a live ball and playable until it hit the ground. The out-of-bounds boundary is flanked with foam-padded sideboards and decisions are made quickly since high-scores are the norm. An indoor season is usually spring and early summer rather than compete for fans during the fall college and NFL season. In the Arena game, the offense laid emphasis on the passing game at the deprivation of a running attack.

“We had a tremendous partnership with the NFL Network. They have true football fans, which was our audience,” explained Kurz. “And every team in the NFL had access to all of our game tapes through our partner ‘Game Tape Exchange’.”

In 1990, Foster was granted a patent on the game of Arena football and the equipment unique to it (particularly the end zone rebound nets), meaning that other indoor football leagues not affiliated with the Arena organization were forced to play by somewhat different rules.

With the success of the Arena League, other indoor associations began to sprout. Currently, there are six professional indoor football leagues that encompass 44 teams.

Super Bowls are now heated scenes

The very first indoor Super Bowl was played in 1977 when the Dallas Cowboys defeated Denver 27-10 in Super Bowl XII at the Superdome in New Orleans. In total, 24 Super Bowls have been played indoors amidst various domed stadiums.

Playing football indoors is an institution that will continue to grow. All indications are that it should be international one day and more and more NFL teams appear to desire the indoor conditions.

Other inclement weather cities have their eye towards building a dome to house their teams and keep their clientele warm, or cool, and always content.