How the Super Bowl Turned American Football into the No.1 US Sport

History Hit

3 mins

06 Feb 2017

The Super Bowl was 53 – or LIII – this year. Beset by brain injury problems, the ball-tampering Deflategate scandal, and falling TV ratings, today’s NFL does not have its troubles to seek.

Crisis management is not, however, new in the sport: it may seem surprising, but the Super Bowl was actually a by-product of a scheme to prevent American Football from imploding.

Born from fear

As with all good history, the origins of the Super Bowl lie in money and fear.

Due to the financial – and existential – threat of the American Football League (AFL), a competition established in 1960 as a rival to the National Football League (NFL), the much older NFL agreed to a 1967 play-off final between their respective champions.

As this game was conceived as a precursor to a full merger in 1970, it is not a stretch to claim that the Super Bowl, with all its pomp and circumstance, was, in its origins, a wedding rehearsal for a marriage of sporting convenience.

Super Bowl I – Los Angeles Coliseum 15 January 1967. Credit: Jimberg13 / Commons.

Made for TV

It seems almost incredible today, but The American Historian and Michael MacCambridge inform us that the 1967 game was not a sell-out, with fans unaccustomed to the novelty of ‘travelling to a neutral venue’; with c.65,000,000 viewers (the largest ever for televised sport), however, the stage was set for football to become the No.1 US sport.

‘The game’s popularity took off from there as the New York Jets’ shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III gave the AFL credibility.

After the merger, the NFL split into the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) and the victors of those conferences fought it out at the end of each season. The two-week gap between the conference championship games allowed suspense to build, as the media presence grew dramatically.

By 1974, the event had grown to such proportions that Norman Vincent Peale declared that if Christ were alive “he’d be at the Super Bowl.” – TAH

A photograph from Super Bowl IX that took place on 12 January 1975. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the game.

Populism and the name game

As The Atlantic noted, the origins of the ‘Super Bowl’ name is surrounded by mystery. Indeed, the first match-up in 1967 was – officially at least – called the ‘AFL-NFL World Championship Game’, and might even have been called the Merger Bowl, Summit Bowl, or The Game. O

Often attributed to Lamar Hunt, the article suggests that, like many an invention, ‘Super Bowl’ was crowd sourced, being a name whose time had come.

‘Officially, the name of the game that will be played in Miami’s Orange Bowl Jan. 14, 1968, between the champions of the two leagues is the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. But by the time that anyone could get that all out, television would have missed the first commercial’ – The Fort Scott Tribune, May 25, 1967

Sources | Wikipedia Super Bowl & American Football League | NFL.com | NFL YouTube | TheAtlantic.com | OAH: The American Historian |

Image Vince Lombardi at Super Bowl I, a 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on January 15 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. ©National Football League