The league is one of the only, and the highest level, Australian Rules competitions played during the Australian Summer with the season beginning in October and ending in March, because cricket cannot be played during the wet season, due to high levels of rain, resulting in the football and cricket seasons being swapped. The league regularly attracts high profile semi-professional players from interstate leagues due to its lack of salary cap and the timing of the season, which allows players to play extra matches during the rest of Australia's off-season.
While most other Australian rules leagues in Australia operate during the southern hemisphere winter, the NTFL chooses to play in the Northern Territory's 'wet season' from October to March, primarily due to hard playing surfaces during the 'dry season'.
The NTFL was founded in 1916 with The Wanderers Football Club and Waratah Football Club as founding members. Waratahs are the only club to have competed in every season of the NTFL. Darwin (Buffalos Football Club) was formed in 1917, Nightcliff in 1950, St Marys in 1952, Palmerston in 1973 (as North Darwin), Southern Districts in 1987 and the Tiwi Bombers in 2006 (with full entry in 2007).
In the 1990s, the league ran into financial problems primarily due to the Northern Territory government luring the league to the new purpose-built stadium at Marrara Oval after its construction in 1991. The move pushed the league's operating costs up drastically despite contrary promises from the NT government. Marrara Oval is now known as TIO Stadium, as part of a naming rights deal with NT health insurance company, Territory Insurance Office.
In 2006, it was announced that a team representing the Tiwi Islands, called the Super Tiwis would be added to the 2006/07 season for eight games against teams that would normally have the bye. They became a permanent part of the league in the 07/08 season as the Tiwi Bombers, clad in Essendon Football Club style guernseys of black and red.
In 2010 it was decided to merge the NTFL with the Top End Australian Football Association (TEAFA) to create a three division competition in which the NTFL would make the Premier League whilst the NTFL reserve competition and clubs from the TEAFA would incorporate the First Division and Second Divisions.
The 2012/2013 season saw Banks Bulldogs and the Central Australian Football Club placed on a four-match trial in the Premier League, for possible full-time inclusion. The Bulldogs, originally a part of the TEAFA competition, would stay in the NTFL Division One competition. But the CAFC team would continue their trial run in the Premier League, the number of games extended to 10 for the 2013/2014 season.
The league consists of both junior and senior divisions. The A Grade competition is known as Premier League and includes eight clubs (Darwin, Nightcliff, Palmerston, Southern Districts, St Mary's, Tiwi Bombers, Wanderers, and Waratah). The reserves are divided into two divisions known as Division 1 (B Grade) and Division 2 (C Grade). Division one includes all Premier League clubs, excluding the Tiwi Bombers, and four other clubs which were formerly in the TEAFA competition (Banks, PINT, Tracy Village, and University). Division 2 consists of eleven clubs with the inclusion of Jabiru, Mindil, and Olympic. The A Grade Women's competition consists of eight clubs, including all Premier League clubs, except for the Tiwi Bombers replaced by Tracy Village.
The junior division is broken into age groups, under 18's, under 16's, youth girls, under 14's, and under 12's, with all age groups split into two divisions, except for under 18's and youth girls. Under 18's is the only junior division with a fixed number of clubs, including all Premier League clubs, except for the Tiwi Bombers replaced by Big River Hawks. The rest of the junior divisions vary based on participation levels each year, however, the clubs with juniors are all the Premier League clubs and Tracy Village.
In 2006, NTFL premier league matches were broadcast nationally for the first time ever on ABC2 each Sunday afternoon from February to March. Previously the matches had only been shown in the Territory on ABC Darwin. In 2008, it reverted to local broadcasting. During the 2014/15 season, the Saturday 3.00pm premier league match was broadcast live on ABC in Darwin.
Internet broadcasting commenced through YouTube during the 2012/2013 season, followed by its inclusion on the ABC iView on-demand service the 2013/2014 season which uses the recordings taken from the match day broadcast. The TV broadcast match was simulcast live on ABC Grandstand on YouTube during the 2014/15 season.
The NTFL attracts strong local crowds. The 2005 Grand final attracted a crowd of over 5,000 people. One of the biggest crowds was the 2010/11 Grand Final between St Mary's and Wanderers, with the Wanderers prevailing with a 28 point win, which attracted an over 9,000 crowd.
Left: Contest during the Southern Districts vs Nightcliff qualifying final.
Middle: Michael Bowden running off of half-back during the Southern Districts vs Wanderers preliminary final.
Right: Ruck contest between Ryan Smith and Neil Vea Vea during the St Mary's vs Wanderers Grand Final.