Birth of the Super Bowl

A collection of Super Bowl trophies are gathered together in the facilties of the New England Patriots. (Associated Press Photo)

As the PhIladelphia Eagles and New England Patriots prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, millions of Americans are preparing for the game, as well.

The annual NFL Championship game has evolved into a spectacle and one of the prime events on the American calendar.

While not officially listed as a national holiday, “Super Sunday” has earned its place as one of the most festive and party-like days of the year.

Last year’s Super Bowl drew 172 million American viewers, the highest watched program in American television history.

Super Bowl Sunday ranks second only Thanksgiving Day as the largest day for American food consumption.

Pizza and chicken wing sales go through the roof from coast to coast. How did this phenomenon come about? How can a single professional football game attract and sustain such massive interest?

American professional football has existed since the early 1920s, but in the early years the players were strictly part-timers, mostly mill workers looking to pick up a small weekend paycheck.

According to Mark Bowden in the book, The Best Game Ever, “In the 1930s and 1940s pro players were regarded as roughnecks and mercenaries and the idea of playing for hire was considered ignoble. The perception of professional football at that time was that it was filled with brawlers, boozers, and big-time gamblers.”

At the time, baseball was the national pastime, football was still primarily a college game.

By the 1950s, National Football League owners were united in their conviction that football could rival baseball for the hearts and wallets of American sports fans. The NFL at that time was divided into two 6-team divisions: the East- NY Giants, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Cardinals: the West- Baltimore Colts, Chicago Bears, LA Rams, SF 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions. The NFL had a monopoly on professional football in America and the course was set for future success.

In 1959, wealthy Texas oilmen Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, sensing the profitability of owning a professional football franchise, approached the NFL regarding the possibility of bringing expansion teams into the league.

The proposal was flatly rejected by the NFL, but Hunt and Adams took the attitude that, “If they won’t invite us to the party, we will hold our own party.”

Consequently, during the summer of 1959 Hunt and Adams created the American Football League to operate in direct competition with the more established NFL.

The original eight AFL teams that began play in the fall of 1960 were located in Boston, Buffalo, Dallas, New York, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

Initially, the NFL undermined the new league and was confident it would fail because it had no players and no television revenue.

Amazingly, the AFL was able to sign 75 percent of the NFL’s first-round draft picks in 1960, including LSU Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon.

Additionally, the AFL was able to secure a long-term television revenue deal with ABC for the inaugural 1960 season. The AFL was proving it was legitimate, yet NFL owners believed it would be a short-lived venture at best.

As expected, the early years of the AFL were a struggle for owners. Low attendance resulted in financial losses, but the league persisted in building fan bases and community support. Two watershed events occurred in the mid-1960s that boosted the AFL’s legitimacy.

In 1964, the AFL and NBC negotiated a $36 million television contract, giving the league much-needed revenue, and prompting Steeler’s owner Art Rooney to comment, “AFL owners don’t have to call us ‘Mister’ anymore.”

This event was followed up in 1965 by the AFL New York Jets signing western Pennsylvania (Beaver Falls High School) and Alabama All-American quarterback Joe Namath to a whopping $425,000 contract, the highest amount of money, up to that time, ever paid to a college player.

Legendary Alabama Coach “Bear” Bryant called Namath the greatest athlete he had ever coached.

Namath’s signing is cited as the strongest contributing factor to the AFL being finally recognized as a bona fide professional football league.

With the rivalry between the two leagues peaked and player salaries escalating, NFL owners approached Lamar Hunt and other AFL owners and proposed a merger of the two leagues, effective with the 1970 season.

In the meantime, it was agreed that the two leagues would play an AFL-NFL championship game, effective at the conclusion of the 1966 season.

AFL owner Lamar Hunt suggested the game be called the “Super Bowl,” a spinoff from the Super Ball toy his children threw around the back yard.

Hunt also suggested the game be designated by Roman Numerals to give it a perception of nobility and class

Both the Super Bowl moniker and the Roman Numerals have stood the test of time.

The first Super Bowl was held on Jan. 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The NFL’s Green Bay Packers soundly defeated the Kansas City Chiefs that day.

Interestingly, the halftime entertainment was provided by two college bands, 300 pigeons, 10,000 balloons, and hydrogen propelled Bell Rocket Men flying around the stadium.

The NFL Packers also won Super Bowl II in 1968, but in Super Bowl III the Joe Namath-led AFL New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts.

This game marked that the AFL was finally on a par with the NFL.

Super Bowl V in 1971 was the first championship game of the merged leagues, and the NFL’s American and National Conferences have been meeting in Super Bowls ever since.

So there you have it, a little history of the origin of the Super Bowl.

If you are like millions of other Americans, you will likely be easing into a chair around 6 o’clock Sunday night, tuning into Super Bowl LII.

Whether an Eagle fan or a Patriot fan, pass the chicken wings!