Mark Washburn

It took a long time for Super Bowl to live up to the name

University of Phoenix Stadium was packed on Feb. 1, 2015, for Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz.
University of Phoenix Stadium was packed on Feb. 1, 2015, for Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz. Getty Images

Before it ballooned into a corpulent behemoth of hype and hucksterism that qualifies as an unofficial national holiday, the Super Bowl was a skinny little waif hooting for someone’s attention.

Hard to believe, but when the Panthers face off against the Broncos on Sunday, they are marking the 50th anniversary of a little-promoted grudge match between warring leagues.

It wasn’t even called the Super Bowl at first. It wasn’t even a sellout. It was so insignificant they didn’t even save its baby pictures.

It was held Jan. 15, 1967, in Los Angeles after the National Football League and upstart American Football League had agreed to merge. For six years, the NFL had looked askance at the rival league, expecting it to go broke as other challengers had, but the AFL had only grown and was beginning to compete for top players.

In early December 1966, it was decided each league’s champions would have a playoff in six weeks. It would be called the World Championship Game.

On game day, about a third of the stands at the 94,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum were empty, even though there was a local TV blackout. Tickets were going for $12, considered a lavish price in the day.

Those who thought the NFL was the superior league found nothing to dissuade them. At game’s end, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers handily beat the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs 35-10, setting the standard for many, many dull playoffs to come.

There was no Lombardi trophy, but there was a Lombardi, one Vincent Thomas Lombardi, leading Green Bay to the first of two successive world championships.

Odd TV split

CBS had the rights to NFL games, and NBC held them for the AFL. It was decided both networks would carry the game.

As game day approached, rivalry grew between the networks, each hoping to score the higher rating.

Jackie Gleason was enlisted to hype the CBS coverage on his popular Saturday night variety show before the game. A fence was erected between the NBC and CBS broadcast camps outside the Coliseum to keep rivals apart.

CBS won on game day, with about 20 percent more viewers. But the NFL won too – the show was viewed in about 40 percent of the nation’s households, which turned heads on Madison Avenue. Those were World Series numbers.

From that point on, the playoff would be the season’s signature game.

Nobody kept a tape

There is no complete tape of the game from either network.

Video cassettes from the era were expensive and bulky contraptions and were routinely scrubbed and re-used if they contained nothing of historical significance.

Such was the fate of the video record of what was retroactively named Super Bowl I. No big deal, each network decided.

Rise of the NFL

Football was a television sport from the beginning. Its confined boundaries and compact combat zones played to the camera.

Sports broadcasting technology advanced to fit the game. But only in the 1970s did the NFL surpass the interest in college football.

Then, as ratings climbed, so did broadcast deals.

In 1972, the Gallup Poll showed that professional football had surpassed baseball as the nation’s No. 1 sport.

What were the greatest Super Bowls?

A good tavern debate starts when the question comes up: Which Super Bowl was the best?

There’s plenty to pick from.

There’s Washington’s Doug Williams-powered victory over Denver in Super Bowl XXII, the last-minute winning catch by Santonio Holmes as Pittsburgh beat Arizona in XLIII, New Orleans’ victory over Indianapolis in XLIV.

But homage must be paid to Super Bowl III at Miami’s Orange Bowl in 1969. It was the first time the game was named the Super Bowl, and it ushered in a new era of player, the populist and flashy star as evidenced by quarterback Joe Namath, who led the New York Jets past Baltimore 16-7.

Namath was brash, polarizing and wickedly effective. His bachelor lifestyle beyond the field became part of the national narrative.

He was a fashion horse, too, like one of the quarterbacks this Sunday. He didn’t care what others thought – he wore pantyhose in a 1974 commercial.

“If Beautymist can make my legs looks good, imagine what they’ll do for yours,” he said.

Super Bowl III also marked the beginning of the celebrity carnival that attends each annual game. Comedian Bob Hope was enlisted to lead a pregame salute to out-of-this-world national heroes – Apollo astronauts who had just gone to the moon.

When the stars come out

College bands handled the early halftime shows, but in the 1970s, they became events of their own.

Greatest ones?

Katy Perry’s appearance with the sharks last year ranks up there. Prince pulled it off in 2007 in Miami, finishing on “Purple Rain.” Bono hit all the notes in a moving 2002 tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Reacting to audience falloff during sluggish halftime shows, the NFL hired Michael Jackson to do 1993’s show. His finale included 3,500 children singing “We Are The World.” Ratings spiked; big acts became part of the game.

In 2004, with the Panthers in their first Super Bowl appearance, CBS turned to corporate partner MTV to produce the halftime show. It would be a trend-setter, the network promised, something that would attract younger viewers.

Janet Jackson’s costume malfunctioned in a TV disaster that has never been fully explained. A mortified CBS said before the game was even over that MTV would never produce another halftime show.

But the NFL went further, deciding to never risk such an embarrassment again. It took over producing the national anthem and the halftime shows.

Marketing game

Amassing the biggest television audience of the year, the Super Bowl has also become the showcase of the nation’s advertising geniuses.

Super Bowl Sunday is opposite day for the audience. Those who routinely fast-forward through commercial breaks on normal shows gather to watch the ads on this one day a year.

Greatest ads? Like greatest games, there’s plenty to compete.

Mean Joe Greene taking a Coke from a kid on his way to the locker room in 1979 has never been forgotten. Apple hired director Ridley Scott to do a breakthrough commercial spoofing oppressed automatons in its 1984 spot introducing the Macintosh.

Budweiser always delivers, often showcasing its fleet of prancing Clydesdales. Volkswagen spiked in social media with its 2011 “The Force” commercial with a kid in a Darth Vader get-up trying to use the force and finding its magic in the driveway when the car leaps to life – with dad helping nearby with the remote.

Power of the Super Bowl

No single event in the nation’s popular culture can match the relentless hype of the Super Bowl.

In 1967, the contest was slapped together in six weeks. Now the venue is decided three years in advance and cities bid for the honor, contenting themselves that the costs will be covered by a surge in tourism and the glare of fawning publicity.

This year, the pretentious Roman numerals used to designate each game have been dropped because an “L” just doesn’t dazzle as the centerpiece of a logo. They will return to form next year, though, for Super Bowl LI, reaching their ostentatious zenith in the year 2054 when Super Bowl 88 contains eight digits, LXXXVIII.

At 50, well into middle age, the Super Bowl has become a force of its own, blending the disciplines of athletics, marketing and showmanship into a not-so-compact celebration available in living rooms nationwide.

It is an exercise in hyperbole and strangely – even superlatively – often lives up to its hype.

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