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Culture in NFL History

The Story of the Super Bowl

In the beginning, the Super Bowl was hardly the larger-than-life cultural extravaganza that we now enjoy as a virtual national holiday. In fact, in the beginning, the Super Bowl wasn't even the Super Bowl. It was merely the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, a hastily organized affair played before a half-full stadium in Los Angeles in January 1967.

The game grew out of merger negotiations recently completed between two competing football leagues that had spent the 1960s fighting for the allegiances of America's sports fans. The venerable National Football League, which had been around since the 1920s, favored a smashmouth brand of football popular among traditionalists, while the upstart American Football League (founded in 1960) offered a more wide-open, high-scoring version of the game that appealed to younger fans. In 1966, after half a decade of fierce rivalry between the NFL and AFL, the two leagues' owners hammered out an agreement to merge into one unified organization: the modern NFL, a single football league that would be divided into two conferences (the NFC and AFC) to reflect the old NFL/AFL split. At the time of the 1966 merger agreement, however, both the AFL and NFL had to honor separate television contracts that made full integration of the two leagues impossible until 1970. In the meantime, the teams that won each league's separate playoffs would meet each January in a single, end-of-season game to crown a true national champion. That game—unpoetically named, at first, the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game"—quickly became known as the Super Bowl. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The first Super Bowl (it would become known as "Super Bowl I" only later, after the NFL began numbering each game with Roman numerals in 1969) didn't end up being much of a contest on the field. The NFL's Green Bay Packers—a true juggernaut of a team, led by legendary coach Vince Lombardi—thrashed the overmatched Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL by a final score of 35-10. Boasting a suffocating defense and a ruthlessly efficient offense, the Packers rolled to an easy victory, even though their aging star running back Paul Hornung missed the game due to a neck injury. In a postgame interview, Lombardi suggested to reporters that the AFL Champion Chiefs were only about as good as an average NFL team.

In many ways, the lopsided action on the field in Super Bowl I was less interesting than the behind-the-scenes drama that allowed the game to kick off at all. While the AFL and NFL agreed in principle to merge (and to begin playing Super Bowls) in the spring of 1966, the merger deal could not be made official until the league received a special antitrust exemption from Congress. But key legislators in Washington reacted coldly to the prospect of the NFL achieving a virtual monopoly over pro football. The league only won its coveted antitrust exemption in October, after months of heavy lobbying ended with the NFL effectively buying the crucial vote of powerful Senator Russell Long by promising to locate its next expansion team in his home state of Louisiana.2 (As promised, the New Orleans Saints joined the league one year later.) By the time the AFL/NFL merger agreement finally won approval, both leagues' 1966 seasons were already well underway, and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle led a frantic effort to organize the first Super Bowl in time for its scheduled kickoff on 15 January 1967.

The weeks leading up to the game witnessed a flurry of last-minute deals and negotiations. The NFL didn't seal its contract to rent the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the game's venue until 9 November 1966, just 67 days before kickoff.3 Both CBS (which televised NFL games) and NBC (which televised AFL games) demanded the right to broadcast the championship game; fearful of alienating either network, Rozelle allowed Super Bowl I to be televised on both. (On game day, the two networks would share the same video feed but each would use its own commentary team; never again would the Super Bowl be broadcast on more than one channel.) Hoping to fill the Coliseum with fans to generate a lively atmosphere, Rozelle set extremely modest prices for admission: $12 bought the best view in the house, while the nosebleed seats cost just $8. (By comparison, Super Bowl tickets in 2008 carried a minimum face value of $700 and scalpers were able to resell the highly coveted ducats for an average of $4300 apiece.)4

Apparently, cheap tickets weren't enough to convince Southern California sports fans to spend the afternoon of 15 January 1967 cheering on teams from faraway Green Bay and Kansas City. Fewer than 62,000 fans were in attendance when the game kicked off on that first Super Sunday, leaving vast swaths of empty seats all around the LA Coliseum (which could accommodate crowds of nearly 100,000). Television cameras tried to frame their shots to avoid showing the empty seats, but it proved impossible to track the football through punts and field goals without revealing that the upper reaches of the stadium were largely vacant. Twenty years later, Pete Rozelle remained bothered by the 1967 game's poor attendance; "Go back to the first Super Bowl," he said, "and all I can remember is 30,000 empty seats."5

While the first Super Bowl's box office left something to be desired, the game proved more successful as a televised product. More than 65 million people tuned in to either NBC's or CBS's coverage of the contest, giving the game a larger TV audience than any previous sporting event in American history. A whopping 41% of American households with TVs tuned into one of the two broadcasts; 71% of all Americans who turned on their televisions that afternoon were watching the game.6 The networks were able to sell 30-second ads for $42,500 apiece (equivalent to $261,500 in 2007 dollars), a price that pales in comparison to the $2.6 million charged in 2007, but which was still quite steep by 1967 standards.7 The success enjoyed by the dual broadcasts of the Packers' victory in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game—mediocre as the contest was on the field—hinted strongly at the televised Super Bowl greatness that was to come.

Packer Domination and a "Mickey Mouse League"?

A year later, the Packers were back, dominating another overmatched AFL foe, the Oakland Raiders, in the second AFL-NFL World Championship Game. In his pregame speech, Coach Lombardi simply told his players that they'd better not lose to a team from "that Mickey Mouse league," the AFL. They didn't. The Packers' blowout 33-14 victory capped a remarkable period of Green Bay dominance; in addition to winning the first two Super Bowls, Lombardi's men had won NFL titles in 1961, '62, and '65. This first great dynasty in modern NFL history ended when Lombardi retired a few weeks after winning Super Bowl II; the Packers and their legions of famously devoted supporters would have to wait nearly three decades for a return to the big game. (Quarterback Brett Favre led the franchise to its third Super Bowl title in 1997.)

As great as the first two Super Bowls were for the Packers and their fans, the games raised uncomfortable questions about the future of the AFL-NFL merger and the Super Bowl itself. In both the 1966 and '67 seasons, the Packers had faced much stiffer competition in the earlier rounds of the NFL playoffs than from either the AFL Chiefs or Raiders in the Super Bowl. What if the AFL really was a Mickey Mouse league? Could the merger prove viable without anything approaching competitive balance between AFL and NFL franchises? Could the Super Bowl attract viewers if AFL teams were forever destined to suffer blowout losses?

Joe Namath and the First True "Super Bowl"

Super Bowl III, played in Miami in January 1969, was the first championship game officially called "the Super Bowl" by the NFL. The name had first surfaced, informally, during high-level AFL-NFL merger talks back in 1966. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt—whose children had recently been playing with an unusually bouncy rubber toy ball called the "Super Ball"—coined the term "Super Bowl" as a kind of jokey internal shorthand for the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. "We were talking about where we were going to have this championship game," Hunt later remembered. "One of the people said, 'Which game are you talking about?' I said, 'Well, you know, the last game after the last game. The final game. The championship game. The Super Bowl.' The members of the committee... all kind of looked at me, and we all kind of smiled."8 The smile-inducing nickname soon leaked to the press, which occasionally and informally referred to both Packers' championship victories as Super Bowls. But powerful NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle hated the hyperbolic name, which he felt sounded undignified and carried a cheesy "carnival" connotation.9 As late as 1968, Rozelle hoped to find a better alternative to the admittedly clunky "AFL-NFL World Championship Game"; for a time, he tried to convince the league's owners to adopt the moniker "Ultimate Bowl." But "Super Bowl" proved popular with the press and the public, and in the buildup to the third championship game in January 1969, Rozelle gave in to the inevitable and officially christened the game Super Bowl III. (At the same time, the two Packers' championships retroactively became, officially, Super Bowls I and II.)

While the naming controversy may have been resolved in the buildup to Super Bowl III, lingering doubts about the game's competitive balance were not. The third interleague championship game pitted the AFL's New York Jets—a good but by no means dominant football team—against the Baltimore Colts, who had steamrolled through tough NFL competition all season long while compiling an impressive 13-1 record. On paper, the game looked like another colossal mismatch. Bettors installed the Colts as a staggering 18-point favorite, making the Jets the biggest underdog in Super Bowl history. Hopes that the Jets might be able to sneak up on the overconfident Colts seemed to be put to rest three days before the game, when brash young New York quarterback Joe Namath—who had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns over the course of the 1968 season—announced, "We're going to win the game. I guarantee it."10 Considering the supposed mismatch between the two teams, Namath's cocky bravado seemed almost ludicrous; most observers figured that the Colts, angered by Namath's disrespect, would use the Super Bowl to teach the impudent AFLers another harsh lesson in NFL superiority.

Instead, the Jets backed up Namath's guarantee, proving the AFL's worth by pulling off the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. An opportunistic Jets defense stymied the Colts' offensive attack, holding the NFL champs scoreless well into the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Namath led a patient Jets offense to one touchdown and three field goals, building an insurmountable 16-0 lead before Baltimore finally scored a touchdown with just over three minutes left in the game. But the Colts could get no closer, and as the final seconds ticked off the clock, Namath sprinted off the field with his index finger raised high in the air—a gesture that has meant "We're Number One" ever since. The scoreboard told one of the most remarkable stories in NFL history: Baltimore 7, New York 16. AFL 1, doubters zero. In one game, the Jets proved that the AFL was no mere "Mickey Mouse league," and that the post-merger NFL—and the Super Bowl—had a bright future.

Rise of the AFC

Ironically, the Jets victory over the Colts—now often ranked as the greatest Super Bowl ever—had lower TV ratings than any other Super Bowl before or since. Perhaps the two previous blowouts, combined with the Colts' status as heavy favorites, discouraged viewership. But news of the Jets' shocking victory dominated headlines for days after the game, implicitly making the case for the Super Bowl's potential to provide powerful live entertainment. Every other major American professional sport decides its championship in a seven-game series, diffusing dramatic tension over a period that can last as long two weeks. By contrast, the Super Bowl stands alone in American pro sports as a one-off championship game, a single winner-take-all contest to decide who becomes an immortal hero and who becomes a forgotten also-ran. In one game, as Joe Namath and the Jets so memorably proved, anything can happen. Ever since, the Super Bowl truly has been must-see TV.

In Super Bowl IV, the last Super Bowl to pit teams from the independent AFL and NFL against one another, the AFL Kansas City Chiefs thrashed the NFL Minnesota Vikings to prove that the Jets' victory a year earlier had been no fluke. In 1970, the merger finally took full effect and the AFL ceased to exist. But former AFL teams in the NFL's new American Football Conference (AFC) dominated their old-NFL counterparts (reorganized into the National Football Conference, or NFC) in Super Bowls throughout the 1970s. The NFC Dallas Cowboys—a franchise that granted itself the grandiose title of "America's Team"—won a pair of championships in 1972 and 1978. Otherwise, the period between the fall of the Packers' juggernaut in the 1960s and rise of the San Francisco 49ers' dynasty in the 1980s was a clean sweep for the AFC. The Miami Dolphins won back-to-back championships in 1973 and '74—the first title capping a perfect undefeated season. (The '72 Dolphins remain the only undefeated team in modern NFL history.) Between 1975 and 1980, the Pittsburgh Steelers rode an explosive offense and fearsome "Steel Curtain" defense to four titles, becoming a dynasty for the 1970s every bit as dominant as Lombardi's Packers had been in the '60s. Bracketing the Steelers' championships, the Oakland Raiders won a pair of Super Bowls in 1977 and 1981, then added a third after relocating to Los Angeles in 1984. All told, AFL or AFC teams won 11 of the first 15 Super Bowls. The balance of power eventually did swing back to the NFC, which won 15 of 16 Super Bowls from 1982 to 1997, including an amazing streak in which six different NFC franchises—San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Washington, Dallas, and Green Bay—combined to win 13 in a row. Since John Elway's Denver Broncos broke the NFC's stranglehold on Super Bowl glory in 1998, the two conferences have been more evenly matched.

From Sporting Event to Cultural Phenomenon

Perhaps even more significant than the action on the field, the 1970s witnessed the beginnings of the Super Bowl's transformation from a mere sporting event—albeit a wildly popular one—into a true force in American popular culture. The first really memorable Super Bowl ad aired in 1973, when blonde bombshell Farrah Fawcett seductively lathered Noxzema shaving cream all over the smiling face of Joe Namath. While the ad now seems almost hilariously rudimentary in its production values, it proved the Super Bowl's potential to launch memorable branding campaigns. Coca-Cola, always on the cutting edge of advertising trends, followed with an even more iconic Super Bowl ad in 1979. The spot starred a telegenic kid alongside intimidating Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman "Mean" Joe Greene. As an exhausted Greene hobbled up the tunnel following a tough game, the kid kindly offered the football star his own bottle of Coke. Guzzling Coca-Cola put even Mean Joe in a happy mood; the ad ended with a thankful Greene tossing the kid his game-worn jersey while the screen displayed the soft drink's slogan, "Have a Coke and a Smile." The ad proved so popular that it spawned an entire hour-long made-for-TV movie, "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid," which aired in 1981.

The growing stature of Super Bowl advertisements paralleled a steady rise in the game's TV ratings. By the late 1970s, the Super Bowl broadcast was typically the most-watched television program of the year; all eleven Super Bowls aired between 1977 and 1987 still rank among the top 30 highest-rated TV shows of all time. The Super Bowl reached its ratings peak in 1982, when blizzard conditions across much of the country forced even more people than usual to stay home on Super Sunday; 49.1% of all American households with televisions tuned in to watch the San Francisco 49ers win their first NFL championship, 26-21 over the Cincinnati Bengals.

That same year marked a key turning point in the Super Bowl's evolution from football game to hoopla-laden pop culture extravaganza, when Motown Records' legendary soul singer Diana Ross performed the national anthem prior to kickoff. Previous Super Bowls had mostly featured pregame and halftime performances from college marching bands or obscure musicians. Diana Ross's electrifying appearance at Super Bowl XVI launched a new era of celebrity involvement in the big game. (Ross's appearance may have also contributed to Cincinnati's loss; according to the half-joking recollection of Bengals wideout Cris Collinsworth, the "gorgeous, just gorgeous" soul singer's long walk onto the field from behind the Bengals' bench distracted the team's players from the task at hand, helping San Francisco jump out to an early 20-0 lead. "If she'd have walked down the 49ers sideline," Collinsworth said, "maybe we'd have won that game."11)

Since 1982, a seemingly endless parade of top-shelf recording talent has followed Diana Ross into the Super Bowl spotlight. Over the years, ever more elaborate song-and-dance productions have featured stars ranging from venerable crooners (Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Aaron Neville) and pop divas (Whitney Houston, Cher, Gloria Estefan, Patti LaBelle, Beyoncé) to country heroes (Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Shania Twain) and teen-pop sensations (New Kids On The Block, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Christina Aguilera). Some of the most memorable Super Bowl performances have featured truly legendary figures in the history of modern popular music: James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Paul McCartney, U2, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, and, most recently, Bruce Springsteen. Bon Jovi closed Super Bowl XXXVII with a special postgame performance of "It's My Life" in 2003, but in 2008 the band's eponymous rockstar frontman revealed that he still dreams of playing the haltime show. Paul McCartney, who as a founding member of the Beatles knew a thing or two about performing on big stages, said "There's nothing bigger than being asked to perform at the Super Bowl."12

The Great Wardrobe Malfunction of 2004

The most famous—or, perhaps, infamous—Super Bowl halftime show of all time took place in Houston in 2004, when an MTV-produced performance featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson ended with a bared breast and a firestorm of controversy. After the two singers danced suggestively through a medley of Jackson's hits, they closed the show with a rendition of Timberlake's "Rock Your Body"—a tune that concludes with the lyric, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song." As the song approached that fateful climax, Timberlake reached across Jackson's body and ripped off a piece of her costume, exposing her naked right breast (and an oversized sun-shaped nipple ring) on live national television. CBS immediately cut away to a wide-angle shot of Reliant Stadium, but not before the 90 million people watching the game had seen more of Janet Jackson than they ever expected. (And yet, predictably, many still wanted to see more. TiVo, which sells digital video recorders that allow viewers to rewind live TV broadcasts, reported that the Jackson/Timberlake incident was the most replayed moment in TiVo history. And clips of the incident posted on YouTube have since been viewed literally millions of times.) Janet Jackson's right breast may well be the most widely viewed mammary in human history.

Jackson, Timberlake, CBS, and MTV immediately found themselves subjected to impassioned criticism from Super Bowl viewers who felt the sexually charged halftime entertainment violated all norms of decency for a supposedly family-friendly broadcast. While Jackson and Timberlake attempted to explain away the incident as a "wardrobe malfunction," few found that explanation compelling. (And the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" itself became a kind of national punch line, eventually ranking as a finalist for the American Dialect Society's 2004 Word of the Year.) The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcast television, received more than 200,000 citizen complaints from upset viewers and eventually fined Viacom (which owns both CBS and MTV) $550,000 for violating decency standards. The Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" inspired Congress to pass the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which dramatically increased fines for televised incidents of nudity in the future. Still, despite the enthusiastic moralizing response of Congress and the FCC, most Americans seemed to feel that the controversy was overblown. Two-thirds of those polled by Time magazine in 2005 felt that the FCC had "overreacted" to the incident.13

The Super Bowl of Advertising

The furor over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" notwithstanding, the Super Bowl's star-studded halftime shows have rarely been very memorable. The same cannot be said for the advertisements that air during the game's timeouts, which in recent years have often been as entertaining as the football itself. While Coca-Cola and "Mean" Joe Greene pointed the way towards a future of advertising-as-entertainment in 1979, the Super Bowl ad did not truly come into its own as a genre until 1984. That's when Apple Computer hired Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott, director of the sci-fi classics Blade Runner and Alien, to create a cinematic TV ad to launch its new line of Macintosh personal computers. Working with a $1.5 million budget, Scott offered an unforgettable new 60-second take on George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. The ad portrayed the heroic resistance of a single young woman to the total social conformity of a nightmarish future world where people have been reduced to mindless automatons; after running from black-helmeted totalitarian storm troopers, Scott's nameless heroine ended the commercial by hurling a sledgehammer straight into a giant projected image of Big Brother. As the screen exploded into white light, Apple's tagline finally scrolled into view: "On January 24," it read, "Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"

The ad represented a triumph of what might be called a postmodern turn in American advertising. The apocalyptic visuals in Scott's ad had no obvious connection to the personal computer industry. The commercial told viewers nothing whatsoever about what the Apple Macintosh did or even what it was, to say nothing of why a consumer might prefer it to competing PCs that used Microsoft's operating system. Instead, the ad sold pure image. Are you a rebel, an individualist, a freedom fighter? Then buy a Mac. You're cooler than everyone else. Or are you a fearful conformist, a mindless drone? Then stick to your PC and enjoy your pointless life as a slave to Big Brother. The ad worked, helping to give the Apple brand a lasting cachet of iconoclastic coolness. Though the "1984" spot never aired again following its lone broadcast during Super Bowl XVIII, the ad was later named "Commercial of the Decade" by Advertising Age magazine and the Number One "Greatest Commercial of All Time" by TV Guide.

By proving that high-concept, high-budget ads could really pay off when beamed out to the Super Bowl's immense audience, Apple's "1984" commercial ushered in a new era in Super Bowl advertising. Ever since, the game has provided a grand stage for the debut of ever more creative and memorable advertisements. Today, an astonishing 36% of Super Bowl viewers actually claim that they watch the game mainly to see the commercials, not the football.14 An entire flashy website, www.superbowl-ads.com, exists for no other purpose than to archive Super Bowl commercials and news articles about them. Major news outlets routinely include reviews of the ads in their reporting on the big game. And corporations don't blink at the prospect of paying upwards of $2.5 million for a 30-second ad slot; the enormous viewership and unparalleled publicity made possible by the Super Bowl make such seeming extravagance worth it.

A New National Holiday

Over the years, the Super Bowl has become much more than a football game. "Super Sunday"—the term itself is trademarked property of the National Football League—now encompasses a football game, an overproduced halftime show, many hours' worth of pregame entertainment and analysis, dozens of highly anticipated commercials, and millions of Americans drinking beer and eating junk food on family-room couches from sea to shining sea. The Super Bowl has become a kind of unofficial national holiday, a midwinter Fourth of July.

In certain sectors of the economy, the Super Bowl now rivals Christmas as a make-or-break day on the annual retail calendar. In 2007, the Super Bowl provided the impetus for more than $2.2 billion in sales of flat-screen HDTVs. (That means that approximately one out of every six HDTVs sold in America that year was bought specifically to show the Super Bowl.) More food is consumed in America on Super Sunday than on any other day of the year save Thanksgiving; the big game sends sales of beer, soda, chips and salsa through the roof. Frito-Lay, the nation's largest producer of potato and tortilla chips, increases its production by 10 million pounds in the buildup to the Super Bowl; tortilla chip sales typically run 30% above normal during game week. Domino's Pizza delivers more pies on Super Sunday than any other day of the year.15 Meanwhile, restaurant sales plummet as millions of potential diners stay home, watching the game on their new HDTVs.

The Super Bowl's outsized economic impact is matched by its deep cultural resonance. There is no other regularly scheduled event in American life seen by so many people; watched by almost everyone, the Super Bowl provides a rare moment of nearly universal shared cultural experience for the 300 million very different people who populate this vast nation. Sportswriter Frank Deford captured the Super Bowl's almost unique impact on American culture. "In a society that is becoming more and more fragmented," he wrote, "...the Super Bowl gives us a moment when we all do come together for a good reason. Not to watch something political, not to watch a tragedy. But just to come together on this level of friendship, and share something and enjoy it. That's wonderful and that's dear, in a way. One does not usually think of football as dear and precious. But what it does to America by binding us for that time, even if you don't give a hoot about football, is good."16 Or, as popular Protestant theologian Norman Vincent Peale once put it: "If Jesus were alive today he'd probably be at the Super Bowl."17

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