The NFL Kickoff game, and related festivities, mark the start of the National Football League season. The first game of the season falls typically on the Thursday following Labor Day. A single game is held, preceded by a concert and other ceremonies. Since the 2004 season, the defending Super Bowl champion has hosted the showcased Kickoff game. The remainder of the league plays their opening weekend game the following Sunday or Monday. The pregame concert and game is televised live, currently on NBC.
While the Kickoff Game had not been introduced until 2002, the concept of the NFL champion playing in an opening game was in no way new. From 1934 to 1976, the first game of the season was the College All-Star Game, an exhibition match featuring the Super Bowl champions against an all-rookie team of college all-stars held annually in Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The game was eventually canceled after the games had become lopsided in favor of the NFL.
The game was introduced in the 2002 season, as an effort to boost economical recovery in the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas in the wake of 9/11. ESPN televised the first game. In order to do so, ESPN eliminated its traditional late-October Thursday night game (held the weekend of Games 1 and 2 of the World Series), and replaced it with the opening night kickoff game. For 2003, the game's popularity and success saw it move to ABC as part of the Monday Night Football package. In order for the kickoff game to fit into the schedule, ABC dropped the Monday Night Football game held in the last week of the NFL season, which had become increasingly unpopular because it had to be scheduled before the season, meaning it often lacked playoff significance. In return, ESPN got a week 17 Saturday Night game.
2004 saw the addition of the stipulation that the kickoff game would always be hosted by the defending Super Bowl champions. After the "Wardrobe malfunction" incident at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the NFL initially cancelled future plans for concerts in conjunction with the NFL Kickoff game. Later in the year, however, the decision was reversed, and instead a 10-second broadcast delay was put in place.
In 2006, with the change in television contracts, the Kickoff Game was moved to NBC, who held the rights to Sunday Night Football. The game opposite the first weekend of World Series games was once again removed to compensate. (The Monday Night game at the end of the season, however, was not revived. Instead, after an impromptu experiment in 2005, a Monday Night doubleheader was scheduled for the same weekend as the kickoff game.
In 2008, the league and NBC agreed to move up the opening kickoff of the kickoff game, to 7:00 PM Eastern Time, so that John McCain could address the nation during the 2008 Republican National Convention without having to compete with the game. That game featured the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. The game was also be the first to be carried by Internet television in the United States, as will all Sunday Night Football games in the 2008 season.