Happy Super Sunday, everybody!
This History Geek is decked out in her lucky Seattle Seahawks jersey and Green Bay Packers flip-flop sandals (Yes, yes, I’m team SEA-PACK all the way, loved both teams since I was 7 years old and always will) and will be tuned in to the game tonight hoping that the Falcons are victorious. But first, as you’re prepping for your Super Sunday celebrations, let me entertain you with how the Super Bowl came to be, and how it turned into an American tradition that became the most popularly-watched sports game in all of America, yes, even growing larger in viewership than the World Series.
Football as a sport first originated in 1867 as a form of the European sport called ‘rugby’ and was popularized by students attending American universities; namely Princeton, Yale, and Brown. The schools adopted the sport as an extracurricular activity. In the late 1800s, a Yale student by the name of Walter Camp, who is now considered to be the Father of American Football, decided that Americans needed their own original version of rugby. He met with a group of coaches and they revised some rules, introducing things like “The line of scrimmage” “the forward pass” and “down-and-distance (downs).” Coaches at other universities got wind of this and began to invent plays based off of these new rules. Popularity grew when Americans realized that this was a sport that they now owned, and football shared baseball’s title of ‘America’s game.’ Many watched and enjoyed football just for the sake of it’s being a new American tradition.
Football became professionalized in 1892 when two Pennsylvania students were paid to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Western Pennsylvania Senior Independent Football Conference. Regional teams were developed, such as the New York Pro Championship that had the teams Rochester Jeffersons and Buffalo All-Stars, and the Ohio League, which was the most prominent of these and created the first national ‘celebrity’ athlete, Native American Jim Thorpe who played for the Canton Bulldogs.
Leo Lyons, the coach of the Rochester Jeffersons, visualized a way to popularize football even further by combining regional teams into national leagues, but WW1 put a halt to this idea until 1920, when in Canton, Ohio, the American Professional Football Conference, which later changed its name to the National Football League, was formed, containing eleven founding teams. Two of these teams, the Chicago Cardinals (Now the Arizona Cardinals) and the Decatur Stanleys (Now known as the Chicago Bears) are all that remain today from the first eleven. In 1921, other teams we still see today joined the ranks. The Green Bay Packers, the New York Football Giants (now the New York Giants) The Portsmouth Spartans (Now the Detroit Lions) and the Dayton Triangles (Now the Indianapolis Colts). With the exception of the Green Bay Packers, all of these original teams from the 20’s and 30’s have moved into larger cities. By the 1950s, the NFL had surpassed Major League Baseball as America’s most-watched sport, as Americans, intrigued with this young and new sport, began to feel that baseball was a thing of the past and football was a thing of the future.
For the first forty years of its existence, the NFL teams played each other and at the end of the season held a championship game. Many Americans, however, felt left out because their large cities and states didn’t have teams. All attempts to try and get the NFL to include more teams failed. The NFL simply wasn’t willing to expand. In response, a group of businessmen stepped up to take action and in 1960, they pooled their money together to establish a league of their own, creating the rival AFL, the American Football League, to include football franchises with divisions in both the East and Western US. The eight founding teams included the New York Titans (Now the New York Jets), the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Houston Oilers, LA Chargers (now the San Diego Chargers), Oakland Raiders, Dallas Texans (Now the Kansas City Chiefs), and the Denver Broncos. A television contract with the ABC network, and then the NBC network in 1965, allowed the popularity of the AFL to spread with televised games.
The NFL and AFL were rivals in every sense of the word. The leagues competed fiercely with player salaries and fought over athletes and teams. In 1966, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt, agreed to a merger with the conditions that there would be a common draft and at the end of the season, the championship teams from both leagues would play one another. It was Hunt who came up with the name ‘Super Bowl.’
The first Super Bowl game was played in 1967 with the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs and featuring a halftime show by the University of Arizona Marching Band and the Grambling State University Marching Band. Though newspapers and broadcasts tried to amp up the hype, the spectators at the stadium were sparse. This was attributed to the fact that fans of both teams would have to travel to a neutral location, and many didn’t have the means, or the time, to do so. But because the game was televised, 65 million viewers tuned in right from their sofas. NBC reported that it was the most-watched sport in broadcast history at the time.
After the first Super Bowl, even more viewers tuned in the following year. In Super Bowl 3, the New York Jets walked away with the championship, landing the AFL’s first Super Bowl victory and scoring credibility, and a surge of fans, for the AFL. By 1974, the popularity of the Super Bowl had grown so large that people were beginning to treat it as a sort of unofficial holiday, hosting Super Bowl parties at their homes and celebrating, even if their teams weren’t the ones that made it to the final game.
In 1984, the first ‘Super Bowl ad’ was born when the Apple company realized that they could take advantage of the astonishing number of television viewers to promote their new Macintosh computer. The ad, directed by Ridley Scott, was a comical rendition based off of George Orwell’s famous book, 1984 and featured a woman tossing a giant sledgehammer into a large television screen showing Big Brother’s propaganda. The ad created such a buzz that the rest of corporate America jumped on the bandwagon to promote their best ads during the Super Bowl. Before long, broadcast companies began to rank the ads, creating competition between the companies to try and score the top ad of the Super Bowl. It gave a reason for non-football fans to tune in and now some people watch the Super Bowl just for the ads themselves.
The 1990s saw the rise of halftime shows by celebrity performers. Before this, the shows traditionally featured university or high school marching bands and drill teams that performed numbers based on that year’s Super Bowl theme. In 1991, celebrity boy band The New Kids on the Block performed onstage, followed by local performers. Gloria Estefan performed the following year with two US Olympic figure skaters. In 1993, Michael Jackson’s sole show set the precedents for all celebrity halftime shows that followed. By 2001’s Super Bowl which featured Aerosmith, N*Sync, Britney Spears, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige, local performers and marching bands were no longer the main attraction and, though they were still featured at most halftime shows, the main focus of the halftime show became all about the celebrity performances.
The Super Bowl just continues to grow in viewership year after year. The last three Super Bowls have seen a staggering number of viewers close to 115 million. The New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons face off tonight in Houston at 5:30 and it’s expected that most of the nation will be watching- fans wearing their team jerseys, munching on chicken wings and chips and dip- to see who emerges as the 2017 football champions. Who will walk away victorious? Find out tonight at 6:30 ET/5:30 C