Given the orgy of excess that accompanies the Super Bowl today, it seems impossible to believe that more than 30 years ago, the NFL’s championship game was a television lead-in to golf.
During Super Bowl V in 1971, NBC encouraged viewers to remain tuned in for coverage of the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Five years later, the final round of the Phoenix Open followed CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl X.
When the New England Patriots and New York Giants clash in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale a week from today, it will serve as a TV prelude to nothing. It will own prime time — own the entire day, really — and might attract an audience in excess of 100 million.
Years and millions of miles of hype from its modest beginnings, the Super Bowl has become a monster event, an unofficial national holiday.
“They take over whatever town they go in. No other event does that,” said Jerry Izenberg, a former Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger columnist who is one of only four newspaper writers who have covered each of the 41 previous Super Bowls.
“It takes a lot of money for a city to get the Super Bowl, and the NFL tells you how they want it, and that’s the way you do it. They could probably even get the name of the town temporarily changed to NFL City if they wanted.”
When Izenberg covered Super Bowl I in 1967, his media credential was one of 338 issued. More than 3,400 are expected to be handed out this week.
Ticket prices for the first game were $12, $10 and $6 — and only 61,946 of the 93,000 seats in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were filled to watch the Green Bay Packers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs. A face-value ticket for Super Bowl XLII costs $700, and ducats will be resold for as much as $4,500.
Super Bowl I drew a TV audience of 39.9 million. Last year, 93.2 million U.S. viewers saw Indianapolis beat Chicago for the NFL championship. Thirty seconds of Super Bowl advertising time cost $42,000 in 1967; this year, about $2.5 million.
“The funny thing is when this all started, the league had absolutely no idea where it was going to go,” Izenberg said.
IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN
The Super Bowl got here through a deft promotion by the league, TV network creativity and business presence that results in acres of corporate tents that surround the stadium.
No other sports league — and few organizations, period — can match the NFL’s marketing might, with the eye of the revenue storm the more than $3.7 billion in television rights fees the league collects annually.
“The NFL has used a unique blend of star power, raw power and savvy business and marketing decisions to create an atmosphere where each game is an event, not a common occurrence,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.
However, the league concedes that when it comes to growth of its title game, America’s love of football and the championship climax are most responsible. When that took hold in the nation’s sports psyche, the Super Bowl turned into a runaway train.
“We have always tried to tap into all segments of society and make this an event for everyone,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “We know that for many people, this is the only NFL event they will watch all year, so we want to give them something to remember. …
“But really, all you need is two teams, someone to turn the stadium lights on, a few footballs and we’re in great shape. The game sells itself.”
THE RULES CHANGE
At times, the event’s magnitude has come to the bewilderment of the players. One of the few quotes from Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas before Super Bowl VI became famous: “If this is the ultimate game, why are they playing it again next year?”
Super Bowl VI was Izenberg’s first hunch that the game was about to become big. That was the first year that players could be interviewed only in organized sessions; hotel rooms were off-limits to media.
Izenberg — who retired from the Star-Ledger last year but still writes freelance columns for the paper, and will do so from Glendale — remembers having breakfast with Kansas City linebacker E.J. Holub in the coffee shop of the Chiefs’ team hotel the day before Super Bowl I.
“Nowadays, if that happened, eight armed guards would shoot you,” he said.
(The other print journalists who have worked every Super Bowl are Jerry Green of the Detroit News; Dave Klein, a former Star-Ledger reporter who owns a Web site dedicated to the Giants, and Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald.)
TV STILL KING
The medium most important to the Super Bowl, however, has been TV. For Super Bowl I, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle awarded broadcast rights to both CBS, the NFL network, and NBC, which broadcast American Football League games.
It was a masterstroke by Rozelle. The CBS and NBC crews developed a rivalry of sorts in the days before the game, and during their respective telecasts, the networks tried to outdo each other — giving the game a television importance it could not have bought at the time.
“Television had a lot to do with it,” said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films. “Once the networks realized that they had a ratings hit on their hands, that machine went into action.”
The heroics of such players as Joe Namath, Larry Csonka, Lynn Swann and Joe Montana captivated football fans, helping the Super Bowl race by the Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500 and any heavyweight title fight as the biggest one-day sporting event in America.
Though the game had always drawn big TV audiences, massive ratings followed its move to a late-afternoon, then evening kickoff. Corporate America climbed on board, using the game to unveil new, creative commercials — bringing in viewers that would not watch otherwise — and creating the official (fill in product here) of the Super Bowl.
Those factors combined to create a perfect storm for the Super Bowl. This week, it is taking over the town.
“At one time, it was just a game,” McCarthy said. “Now, it’s an experience.”
Super Bowl signposts
The pivotal contests in the Super Bowl’s growth from just a football game to monster, national holidaylike event:
III and IV: Joe Namath and the New York Jets stunned the world with their upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, giving the American Football League legitimacy. However, it could have easily been a fluke. The affirmation came a year later, when the Kansas City Chiefs routed the Minnesota Vikings to show that the AFL and NFL went into their 1970 merger as competitive equals.
XII: Weather was not a factor with the game indoors at the Louisiana Superdome, so the NFL experimented with a later kickoff — 6:15 p.m. Eastern time — that put the CBS broadcast in prime time. Dallas’ victory against Denver drew the fourth-largest television audience ever (and the biggest for a sporting event) to that point.
XIII: With Pittsburgh and Dallas the unquestioned two best teams in the NFL and the Cowboys’ game-week trash talk aimed at Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, this was the first Super Bowl with a true heavyweight title-fight feel. The game lived up to the hype, with Pittsburgh winning 35-31.
XVII: Television first utilized the Super Bowl as a prime-time ratings lead-in. NBC filled the time slot after Washington’s victory against Miami for the highly promoted debut of “The A-Team,” starring Mr. T. For years, networks typically aired a series premiere after the Super Bowl, with little success — “The A-Team,” (1983) “The Wonder Years” (1988) and “Homicide: Life On The Street” (1993) were the only shows to stick around for a while. Since 1996, the time slot has been devoted to an established program.
XVIII: The Los Angeles Raiders’ romp of Washington was a dog, so the game is most notable for the “1984” commercial that Apple computers produced solely for CBS’ broadcast. That started the trend of new, creative Super Bowl commercials that many people tune in to watch more than the game itself.
XXV: The Super Bowl became a prime-time television event for good. The game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants was the first with what has become the game’s traditional kickoff time, 6:18 p.m. Eastern.
XXVII: For years, Super Bowl halftime shows consisted primarily of themed performances with dancers and floats, and interest began waning. For the contest between Dallas and Buffalo, the NFL decided to adopt a miniconcert format with perhaps the biggest performer in the world at the time, Michael Jackson. U2, Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones have been among halftime performers since.
Tribune deputy sports editor Craig Morgan contributed to this article.