Don't skip this if you hate sports. There's trivia you can use to regale strangers at Super Bowl parties.
The proliferation of ads online and on TV referring to "The Big Game" reflect the NFL's ruthless enforcement on its copyright of the phrase "Super Bowl." The game has become a billion-dollar industry all by itself, the most popular spectacle of an already wildly popular league. Americans mistakenly believe it's the most-watched annual TV event (that honor actually belongs to the UEFA Champions League soccer match, and the audience for the World Cup men's final easily dwarfs both) but there's no doubt that it is an American institution at this point. When even the commercial breaks get saturation media coverage it's safe to say that the game has secured its place in our society for better or worse. I've had the good fortune to attend a Super Bowl, and even the spectacle on television is nothing compared to the live experience.
If we told them about the amount of money and attention devoted to the modern Super Bowl, the people who came up with the idea would think us insane. It's hard to believe that they weren't sure this "Super Bowl" thing would catch on – or that it almost didn't. Here are some quick facts about Super Bowl I at the end of the 1966 season.
1. It didn't sell out. They couldn't even give away the unsold tickets. Look at the stands in this live shot:
Part of the problem was that the location of the game, Los Angeles, was not decided until six weeks (!!!) before the game. Today it is awarded years in advance and cities fight like dogs for the honor to host it.
2. It was broadcast on two different networks simultaneously. The game pitted the champions of the AFL and NFL against one another (the leagues merged and became the AFC/NFC conferences in 1970) and the CBS had an ironclad contract to broadcast all NFL games. NBC had the same deal with the AFL. So the game organizers solved the problem but letting both broadcast it. The ratings were poor and a 30-second commercial cost $40,000.
3. The halftime show was a smattering of high school and college marching bands. They put no thought into it and certainly didn't consider paying a celebrity to perform.
4. Neither network thought enough of the game to keep a tape for its archives. No complete video footage of the game exists.
The game was part of an AFL-NFL merger agreement signed in 1966 (it mandated an "AFL-NFL World Championship Game", and the name "Super Bowl" wasn't applied until Super Bowl III in 1969) but the leagues remained separate entities for a few more seasons. As such there were some compromises that had to be made in order to bring the two together for one game. Neither league would agree to let the other's referee crews officiate the game, so a hybrid six-man crew – 3 NFL, 3 AFL – was adopted. Since the leagues' officials wore different uniforms, a new "neutral" uniform was whipped up (note: the AFL ref uniforms were simply amazing). Each league had its own equipment contract, so the Chiefs used the Spalding AFL football and when the Packers offense took the field, the NFL Wilson ball was used. The entire game was played under NFL rules, although the only major rule difference was the AFL's use of the two-point conversion (which the NFL did not adopt until 1994).
Oh, there was also a game. Part of the reason for the low interest was the widespread assumption among the media and fans that champions of the older, established league – the NFL – would crush the rag-tag AFL squads, the league having been founded just six years earlier. And that's exactly what happened. The Kansas City Chiefs squad loaded with all-time greats was destroyed 35-10 by Vince Lombardi's Packers team that happened to be even more loaded with all-time greats. The same Packers squad crushed the AFL champion Raiders the next year in Super Bowl II, and it is highly likely that the game might have slid into obscurity had the AFL not rallied to win Super Bowls III (the infamous Joe Namath-led Jets win over the Baltimore Colts) and IV (the same Chiefs squad walloped the Minnesota Vikings). Only when the viewing public became convinced that the matchup would be competitive did the game really take off, a process facilitated by the full merger of the leagues in 1970 (which shifted some NFL stalwarts like the Colts and Chiefs to the AFC).
As difficult as it is to imagine today with the global TV audience of 100,000,000 and the multimillion dollar ad spots, the people who devised the idea of a game between the league champions actually had serious and legitimate doubts about whether anybody would care. Finally they convinced themselves that by golly, this "Super Bowl" thing might just catch on.
That's how people talked in 1966, right?