By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA
THE SUPER BOWL HISTORY
The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the National Football League (NFL), the highest level of professional American football in the United States, culminating a season that begins in the late summer of the previous calendar year. The Super Bowl uses Roman numerals to identify each game, rather than the year in which it is held. For example, Super Bowl I was played on January 15, 1967, following the 1966 regular season. The most recent game, Super Bowl XLVIII, was played on February 2, 2014, following the 2013 season.
The game was created as part of a merger agreement between the NFL and its then-rival league, the American Football League (AFL). It was agreed that the two leagues’ champion teams would play in the AFL–NFL World Championship Game until the merger was to officially begin in 1970. After the merger, each league was redesignated as a “conference”, and the game was then played between the conference champions. Currently, the National Football Conference (NFC) leads the league with 25 wins to 22 wins for the American Football Conference (AFC). The Pittsburgh Steelers hold the record for Super Bowl victories with six.
The day on which the Super Bowl is played, now considered by some a de facto American national holiday is called “Super Bowl Sunday”. It is the second-largest day for U.S. food consumption, after Thanksgiving Day. In addition, the Super Bowl has frequently been the most watched American television broadcast of the year; the four most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history are Super Bowls. In 2011, Super Bowl XLV became the most-watched American television program in history with an average audience of 111 million viewers, surpassing the previous year’s Super Bowl, which itself had taken over the number-one spot held for 28 years by the final episode of M*A*S*H. The Super Bowl is also among the most-watched sporting events in the world, almost all audiences being North American, and is second to soccer’s UEFA Champions League final as the most watched annual sporting event worldwide.
For four decades after its 1920 inception, the NFL successfully fended off several rival leagues. However, in 1960, it encountered its most serious competitor when the American Football League (AFL) was formed. The AFL vied heavily with the NFL for both players and fans, but by the middle of the decade the strain of competition led to serious merger talks between the two leagues. Prior to the 1966 season, the NFL and AFL reached a merger agreement that was to take effect for the 1970 season. As part of the merger, the champions of the two leagues agreed to meet in a “world” championship game for professional American football until the merger was effected.
Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, first used the term “Super Bowl” to refer to this game in the merger meetings. Hunt would later say the name was likely in his head because his children had been playing with a Super Ball toy (a vintage example of the ball is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio). In a July 25, 1966, letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Hunt wrote, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.” Although the leagues’ owners decided on the name “AFL-NFL Championship Game,” the media immediately picked up on Hunt’s “Super Bowl” name, which would become official beginning with the third annual game.
The “Super Bowl” name was derived from the bowl game, a post-season college football game. The original “bowl game” was the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, California, which was first played in 1902 as the “Tournament East-West football game” as part of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses and moved to the new Rose Bowl Stadium in 1923. The stadium got its name from the fact that the game played there was part of the Tournament of Roses and that it was shaped like a bowl, much like the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut; the Tournament of Roses football game itself eventually came to be known as the Rose Bowl Game. Exploiting the Rose Bowl Game’s popularity, post-season college football contests were created for Miami (the Orange Bowl) and New Orleans (the Sugar Bowl) in 1935, and for Dallas (the Cotton Bowl) in 1937. Thus, by the time the first Super Bowl was played, the term “bowl” for any big-time American football game was well established.
After the NFL’s Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, some team owners feared for the future of the merger. At the time, many doubted the competitiveness of AFL teams compared with their NFL counterparts, though that perception changed when the AFL’s New York Jets defeated the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami. One year later, the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs defeated the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings 23–7 in Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, which was the final AFL-NFL World Championship Game played before the merger. Beginning with the 1970 season, the NFL realigned into two conferences; the former AFL teams plus three NFL teams (the Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns) would constitute the American Football Conference (AFC), while the remaining NFL clubs would form the National Football Conference (NFC). The champions of the two conferences would play each other in the Super Bowl.
The winning team receives the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the coach of the Green Bay Packers, who won the first two Super Bowl games and three of the five preceding NFL championships in 1961, 1962, and 1965. Following Lombardi’s death in September, 1970, the trophy was named the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and was the first awarded as such to the Baltimore Colts following their win in Super Bowl V in Miami.
The game is played annually on a Sunday as the final game of the NFL Playoffs. Originally, the game took place in early to mid-January, following a fourteen-game regular season and two rounds of playoffs. Over the years, the date of the Super Bowl has progressed from the second Sunday in January, to the third, then the fourth Sunday in January; the game is currently played on the first Sunday in February, given the current seventeen-week (sixteen games and one bye week) regular season and three rounds of playoffs. Also, February is television’s “sweeps” month, thus affording the television network carrying the game an immense opportunity to pad its viewership when negotiating for advertising revenue. The progression of the dates of the Super Bowl was caused by several factors: the expansion of the NFL’s regular season in 1978 from fourteen games to sixteen; the expansion of the pre-Super Bowl playoff field from six teams (two AFL and four NFL) prior to the merger, to eight in the 1970–71 season, then to ten in 1978–79, and finally twelve in 1990–91, necessitating additional rounds of playoffs; the addition of the regular season bye-week in the 1990s; and the decision to start the regular season the week following Labor Day.
To date, 36 games have been played in January, and 11 in February. The earliest game played was Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977. The latest played was Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010. The most frequent date for the game has been January 26, with four games played. Between January 9 and February 7, the only dates not to feature the game have been January 10, 19 and 23. Super Bowl XLVIII will be the first Super Bowl played on February 2, a date commonly celebrated as Groundhog Day.