While the Houston Astrodome was the first domed stadium in the NFL (the stadium was host of the Houston Oilers from 1968 to 1996), it did not host the first indoor game in pro football history. That honor belongs to New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
In 1902, the manager of Madison Square Garden, a New York promoter named Tom O’Rourke, was looking for a way to fill his arena on New Year’s Day, 1903. He came up with the idea of playing a series of indoor football games, the winner of which, he declared, would be the World Champion.
O’Rourke promoted his tournament as pro football’s “World Series.” Thus, strictly speaking, America’s first “World Series” was actually a pro football game. Ten months later, Major League Baseball played its first World Series game.
The best pro football teams in 1902 had been the Phillies and Athletics of Philadelphia, the Stars of Pittsburgh, and the Red and Blacks of Watertown, New York. Unfortunately, O’Rourke was unable to get any of those teams to participate in his hastily scheduled tournament.
However, players from both the Phillies and Athletics got together and formed their own team that became known as the “New York” team. The other teams accepting O’Rourke’s invitation included the Orange, New Jersey Athletic Club; the Warlow Athletic Club; the New York Knickerbockers; and the Syracuse Athletic Club. O’Rourke’s plan was to set up a schedule that would allow the favored hometown Knickerbockers to play the neighboring Orange Athletic Club in the final Championship Game.
This he thought, would guarantee the best attendance and resulting gate receipts on New Year’s Day. Hoping to eliminate the weaker teams early, O’Rourke scheduled the Syracuse and “New York” teams to open the series and play pro football’s first indoor game on December 28, 1902.
O’Rourke incorrectly assumed “New York” would defeat Syracuse and then the stronger Knickerbockers would defeat both the weak Warlow Athletic Club and then the “New York” team. What the promoter did not count on was Syracuse loading up with “ringers” from other teams, including the entire backfield of the powerful Watertown Red and Blacks. The bolstered Syracuse Athletic Club not only won its opener 5-0, but also clobbered the Knickerbockers and Orange Athletic Club by 36-0 scores and claimed the 1902 indoor World Championship.