The History of the Super Bowl

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One day every year, the United States celebrates its biggest non-official holiday: Super Bowl Sunday. 

The championship game of the National Football League is almost always the biggest television audience of the year in the United States and one of the most expensive tickets for any sporting event. 

However, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, originally, it wasn’t even called the Super Bowl.

Learn more about the Super Bowl and how it became so big on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

We should probably start this discussion of the Super Bowl with a question that is never asked amongst Americans and probably befuddles people outside of the US.

Why do we call big American football games “bowls”?

The answer to this question is actually pretty straightforward. 

The very early football stadiums were called bowls because they were shaped like a bowls with a single tier of seats. 

In particular, it stems from the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. 

When it was built in 1923, the Tournament of Roses Game became known as the Rose Bowl Game in reference to the stadium. It was a game which was played between the champions of the Big 10 and Big 12 in college football.

Over time, other cities, seeing the success of the Rose Bowl, began hosting special games themselves. Copying the Rose Bowl, they began using the word “bowl” to describe the games. The Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Sun Bowl were all established in the 1930s. 

The use of the word “bowl” was limited to college football games until the NFL adopted the term “Pro Bowl” for their all-star game in 1951.

Other games have earned the moniker “bowl” after the fact if the game was noteworthy. Most notable was the Ice Bowl, played between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship Game. 

The game was played at temperatures of ?15 °F  or ?26 °C, with wind chills of -48 F. 

It remains the coldest NFL game ever played. 

The Super Bowl wasn’t originally called the Super Bowl. 

In the 1950s, a rival football league, the American Football League, was created to compete with the established National Football League.

At first, the league wasn’t much of a threat. However, the AFL soon began competing with the NFL for players. The AFL got a television deal with NBC and was starting to be taken seriously. 

Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Scharam reached out to AFL owners, and in 1966 the two leagues agreed to a merger. The official merger would take place in 1970, but before that, each league’s champion would compete in an end-of-season game which was called the AFL–NFL Championship Game.

Kansas City Chief’s owner Lamar Hunt began informally calling the game the Super Bowl, based on a super ball that his daughter was playing with. 

Informally, everyone used the term “Super Bowl” to refer to the game, but it wasn’t officially given that name until the third game in 1969. 

The first game was between the Green Bay Packers, fresh off their historic win in the Ice Bowl, and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

The NFL was seen as the elder and better league. Everyone assumed that the NFL would easily beat the AFL team. In the end, that is exactly what happened, with the Packers winning 35-10, but the game was close at the start.

The game was not sold out, even though tickets were sold for only $12. 

No one really knew that the game was going to become a big deal. In fact, many people thought it was just a gimmick and that the real championship already took place two weeks before.

It was the only Super Bowl to have been broadcast by two networks. NBC had the rights to AFL games, and CBS had rights to NFL games, so both networks broadcast the game. 

Despite two networks showing the game, all copies of the game were lost for decades. Both networks erased the tapes that had copies of the game as a cost-saving measure. 

It wasn’t until 2011 that a color videotape was discovered in a Pennsylvania attic that contained most of the game, except for the third quarter. 

In 2016, the NFL announced that they had found enough footage to put together all of the plays in the game. 

Super Bowl II was still officially called the AFL-NFL Championship Game, but it was widely called the Super Bowl at this point. The Packers once again won, beating the Oakland Raiders. 

The third Super Bowl really changed the status of the game. Prior to Super Bowl III, people were worried that the divide between the NFL and the AFL was too great and that the games would be lopsided for years. When the New York Jets of the AFL defeated the Baltimore Colts of the NFL, the game was given life as it was now considered a real competition. 

The trophy given to the winning team was originally designed by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1966 and was created by Tiffany & Company. The trophy is made of sterling silver and has become one of the most iconic awards in all sports. 

In Super Bowl V, the trophy was named the Lombardi Trophy after Vince Lombardi, the coach of the first two winning Super Bowl teams the Green Bay Packers, passed away in 1970. 

Since the creation of the Super Bowl, several traditions and superlatives have been established around it. 

Of the largest television audiences in American history for regularly scheduled broadcasts, 29 of the top 30 have been Super Bowls. The only other program to crack the top 30 was the series finale of MASH in 1983. 

For any TV audience in the US, eight of the ten most-watched television programs in US history have been Super Bowls. The other two were the Apollo 11 moon landing and the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Super Bowl is not the most-watched television program in the world. It isn’t even close, with the finals of the World Cup getting much larger audiences. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that American football really doesn’t have much interest outside the US and Canada.

The estimated audience for Super Bowl 58 will be 115 million people in the US alone. Surprisingly, despite ratings for television having dropped across the board, the Super Bowl audience keeps getting bigger.

The Super Bowl is the day of the year with the second-highest consumption of food in the United States, just behind Thanksgiving.

It is by far the biggest day of the year for gambling. Over $23 billion dollars is expected to be bet in 2024, which will set an all-time record. That is up from $16 billion in 2023. The dramatic increase in betting is due to the increase in legal sports betting in many states.

The use of Roman Numbers to delineate each game with Super Bowl V. The only exception to this was Super Bowl 50 because it was thought that Super Bowl L just didn’t look right.

The average cost of a ticket for the last five Super Bowls has been $5,500. The price on the secondary market was over $8,300. 

To buy a luxury suite at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas in 2024 will run you $1.4 million.

The New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers share the record for the most wins at 6. The Patriots and the Denver Broncos share the record for the most losses at 5. 

Four NFL teams have never appeared in a Super Bowl: the Cleveland Browns, the Detroit Lions, the Houston Texans, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.  

The cost of a Super Bowl commerical is the highest of any television event each year. In 2024, the cost of a 30-second ad was $7 million. To put that into perspective, a 30-second ad in Super Bowl I was $37,000.

Commercials are the highlight of the game for many people. There are many large companies that will prepare their best advertisement to air during the Super Bowl. They will often spend as much of the production of a commercial as for the ad spot itself.

Several years ago, one glue company called Loctite spent its entire annual advertising budget on one 30-second ad.

There has always been a rumor of water systems being stressed during the Super Bowl because everyone would flush the toilet at the same time during commercials and halftime. This is an urban myth. Water systems are not stressed. However, you can clearly see when key moments in the game happen by looking at water usage stats. 

The halftime main entertainment for the Super Bowl is not paid. However, the publicity is worth tens of millions of dollars and usually leads to a spike in album and ticket sales.
For example, after the 2017 Super Bowl, where Lady Gaga was the halftime show, she saw a 1,000% increase in album sales the next day. 

Nonetheless, about $10 million dollars is spent on the halftime show, paying for extras, stages, and other parts of the show.

Believe it or not, in 55 years, no sitting president has ever attended a Super Bowl. However, several vice presidents have. 

The very first touchdown ever scored in Super Bowl I was scored by Green Bay Packer Max McGee, who was hungover at the time, as he was out late the night before drinking. One of the reasons why he was out late and drinking is because no one really took the game that seriously at first. 

Traditionally, the mayors of the cities of the teams in the Super Bowl will place a wager on the game. The wager usually consists of some product made in the city. For Super Bowl LVIII, the mayor of San Francisco has put up Dungeness crab from Fisherman’s Warf. The mayor of Kansas City has put up a Kansas City BBQ from Gates BBQ Ribs…..which, if you are in Kansas City, I highly recommend visiting.

Super Bowl LV was the first time that a team played in their home stadium. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is the home field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who happened to have won the NFC championship that year.

As the game is usually played on a neutral field, the NFC is considered the home team in odd-numbered years, and the AFC is the home team in even-numbered years. 

So, for those of you in the United States, you can join in and be one of the estimated 115,000,000 people who will watch at least some of the game.

Even if you aren’t American, and have absolutely no interest in the NFL, it is probably worth tuning in for a few minutes to witness this most unique American spectacle.