When it comes to football, there are a few areas of confusion, particularly over the terminology. For a start, it depends on which country you are in when you say football as that could mean Aussie rules, soccer, or American Football (and let’s not even discuss the Rugby Football League or Union).
Even once you have narrowed it down to American football (or just football, depending on where you are) you then need to know whether you are talking about the National Football League, or NFL, or the Arena Football League, the AFL.
The NFL was founded in 1920 when eleven teams joined together to form the American Professional Football Association, although they changed the name to the National Football League a few years later. Today, there are thirty-two teams in the NFL, made up of sixteen teams from the National Football Conference (NFC) and sixteen teams from the America Football Conference (AFC).
The NFL is considered the highest level of professional football playing in the United States and the combined value of the thirty-two teams is thought to be more than $140 billion, so it tends to dominate the mainstream media’s interest in football.
The AFL was founded much more recently, in 1987, with fifteen teams that play indoor American football. Although the organisation has had a few different incarnations over the years due to financial difficulties, an announcement in 2023 revealed that a new league has been founded and is set to begin playing in 2024.
Both sports are popular in the US and across the world, with many fans even placing sports bets on matches. Various online bookies offer NFL odds and AFL odds and recent studies show that the NFL Super Bowl match roughly receives $16billion in sports bets.
Apart from the indoor versus outdoor nature of the two leagues, there are a few other differences between the NFL and AFL, such as:
The playing field
While it may not be obvious, the size of the field has a significant impact on every element of the game. While NFL fields are 160 feet wide and 300 feet long, the AFL fields are around half the size at 85 feet wide and 150 feet long.
This means that the gameplay is a lot faster as the athletes do not have to run as far, and it also leads to higher scoring which can make AFL games more exciting for those that like plenty of action.
A team is only as good as its players and the lives of the biggest footballing stars have become increasingly newsworthy in recent years. Fans are increasingly keen to learn as much as they can about the players, and the open rosters in the NFL mean that there is always plenty of locker room news.
In contrast, AFL teams consist of only twenty-four players of whom twenty are active and four are inactive. The inactive players play when one of their teammates is injured or otherwise unable to play.
In the NFL, eleven players from each team are on the field at a time, although they can be substituted at any time to give the team the best chance of winning. In AFL, the team consists of only eight players and only one substitute is allowed per quarter with a few exceptions.
Both games require careful management to ensure that the best team is fielded at any given time and league regulations do have a significant bearing on how players are utilised to best effect.
Surely one of the most important parts of a game is the scoring and this takes a slightly different form in each game. The NFL and AFL both award six points for scoring a touchdown and three for scoring a field goal.
In the AFL, however, there are goalside rebound nets that allow the ball to come back into play after a missed attempt to score. In the NFL, any kicks or passes that happen out of the back of the endzone are out of play.
In the NFL, the goals are 18.5 feet wide and the crossbar is 10 feet off the ground, whereas the goals in the AFL are 9 feet wide with a crossbar at 15 feet. In the NFL, there are no points available for the defence when one team scores, whereas the defence can win two points.
While the differences between the NFL and the AFL may seem subtle, they are actually responsible for quite significant differences between the two types of football, and fans notice these when watching the games. The AFL is known for faster-paced games in which high scores are likely, whereas the NFL is known for games of strategy where mounting a good defence is one of the most important parts of securing a victory.
While fans may favour one league over another, the appeal of the game is clear in both cases and most football enthusiasts will at least be intrigued to see how the latest incarnation of the AFL fares after next year’s relaunch.