Bobby Bell vividly remembers standing on the Los Angeles Coliseum field that day in 1967, looking up and seeing all those empty seats, and asking himself, “Who in the hell is going to pay $12 for a ticket?”
Bell, the former Gophers great, is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He is one of the best to ever play in the NFL. But, as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, who lost to the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl, he did not appreciate the history of what he saw that day: the beginning, the very first steps, of a cultural phenomenon.
Of course, just about everyone felt that way. The name Super Bowl — coined by former Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt and inspired by the Super Ball toy — wasn’t officially adopted until the fourth of these games.
“It was another game,” Bell said. “You went out and played. That was it. These days? Unbelievable.”
The parties and galas, the pomp and circumstance. You can argue that the Super Bowl has become the last great mass American ritual. People watch for the game. For the advertisements. For the halftime show. And not necessarily in that order.
John Tauer is a social psychologist and professor at the University of St. Thomas. Each spring, he teaches a class in motivation and emotion, where the topic of Super Bowl ads come up.
“I’m always amazed at the number of students who don’t know who won but can name their favorite commercials,” he said.
But it wasn’t always this way.
That first Super Bowl — then known as the AFL-NFL Championship Game — was not sold out. Two networks televised the game, but neither felt it necessary to save the footage. Reportedly, the week before the game, burglars broke into the Chiefs’ executive offices and ransacked the place but left the team’s game tickets behind.
A 30-second TV ad cost $37,500, and more than 51 million people tuned in. Last year, more than 111 million people watched, and advertisers paid north of $5 million for a 30-second spot.
So how did we get from there to here? From a football game to a national holiday? (Don’t laugh; 17,000 people once signed an online petition to make the day after the game an official holiday. National Hangover Day, anyone?)
Here’s a look at some significant steps:
Bidding war begins
How, you’re asking, is a Hungarian-born kicker named Pete Gogalak, who never played in a Super Bowl, such a big deal? He was playing for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s when the New York Giants, desperate for a kicker, signed him.
This was a big deal. The upstart AFL and NFL were competing for college players, but there was an unwritten rule that they would keep their hands off each other’s veterans. This broke that deal, started a bidding war between the leagues and ultimately forced talks that resulted in a merger, set to begin after the 1969 season, and the establishment of a championship game.
“We started talking seriously [about a merger] after the Gogolak affair,” former Vikings owner Max Winter once said. “That’s what triggered it.”
When it all began
Two networks, one tied to each league. And two footballs, too; the Chiefs used a Spalding when they had the ball, the Packers used Wilson’s “The Duke.” There was pressure on Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi to hold up the NFL’s image. There was so much acrimony between the CBS and NBC TV crews that a wall was built between their compounds.
“We sat around a swimming pool meeting the media,” Bell said. “Everyone in shorts. That was it.”
But it was a start.
Third time’s the charm
The Packers had won the first two. In Super Bowl III, the Baltimore Colts were favored by 18.
“And then Joe Cool said he was gonna win the thing,” Bell said.
That would be Joe Namath, who, invited to talk to the Miami Touchdown Club, guaranteed a victory for the New York Jets.
The newness of the game had faded, and this one didn’t sell out until just before kickoff. It remains the lowest-rated Super Bowl. But Namath and the Jets changed all that with a 16-7 victory.
“For the purpose of getting the phenomenon started, that was the needed ingredient,” said Joe Horrigan, Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director. “Not just that it was an upset. It was important in the idea that there was competitive balance.”
The NFL was the establishment, but the AFL, with Namath as the focal point, seemed younger, more hip. And, of course, Namath won.
“It was like the Beatles coming to America and replacing the Four Seasons,” Horrigan said.
This was the last Super Bowl before the merger, when the Chiefs beat the heavily favored Vikings 23-7. Bell was on that Kansas City team, as was former Gophers great Bob Stein. The AFL had always felt it was, as Bell said, the outcast: “We had a lot of players the NFL wouldn’t even draft.”
The search for talent that began with the establishment of the AFL took league owners — particularly the Chiefs’ Hunt — to places the NFL had not reached: traditionally black colleges. As a man who made his way from North Carolina to the University of Minnesota, this is important for Bell. The 1969 Chiefs had 13 players from traditionally black schools. Nine of them started. Three became Hall of Famers: cornerback Emmitt Thomas, defensive tackle Buck Buchanan and linebacker Willie Lanier.
“We informed the offense, ‘Hey, ain’t too many points going to be scored [by the Vikings],’ ” Bell said. “We asked them to get nine, 10 points and we’d take it from there. What we did, we were saying, we’re here to stay.”
The man and the microphone
Super Bowl IV also was when Chiefs coach Hank Stram took a few hundred bucks from NFL Films to wear a microphone during the game. The result annoys Vikings fans to this day, with Stram calling that iconic play, 65 toss power trap, exhorting his guys to “matriculate” the ball down to the field.
What you might not know is that Stram didn’t tell anyone he was doing it. Stein remembers asking a teammate what was wrong with their coach. Animated usually, Stram was over the top that day.
Super Bowl X
By this point, there had been a series of noncompetitive games. But this one — Pittsburgh edging Dallas 21-17, with Lynn Swann making those acrobatic catches — came just in time.
Anya Major was the woman who starred in the iconic Apple computer ad, directed by Ridley Scott, that played off George Orwell’s “1984” and was run during the Super Bowl that same year. This is a milestone. There had been some big ads before: a Noxzema ad with Namath and Farrah Fawcett in 1973, Joe Greene’s Coca-Cola ad in 1980. But Apple opened the floodgates — perhaps the first time a commercial was talked about more than the game, a one-sided Oakland win.
Before 1993, halftime shows mainly consisted of either marching bands or “Up With People.” In an 11-minute set, Michael Jackson captivated the crowd at the Rose Bowl and America itself; NBC’s ratings went up during the halftime show, which would never be the same.
As far back as 1974, minister and author Norman Vincent Peale said, “If Jesus were alive today, he’d be at the Super Bowl.”
Maybe not today; it might be impossible to get a ticket. More than a half-decade ago the game didn’t sell out. Now? So much more than just a game. There is the NFL Experience, NFL Live. Nicollet Mall has been turned into a blocks-long carnival. There is the Super Bowl national anthem (Pink), the Super Bowl halftime act (Justin Timberlake), and there are high-buck Super Bowl parties.
Oh, and a game. Preston Pearson played in five Super Bowls, winning two. He was on the Baltimore team that lost to the Jets, the Pittsburgh team that beat the Vikings in Super Bowl IX, then in three more with Dallas, including Super Bowl X. He saw this game grow first-hand. “I’m not sure anybody saw this one coming,” he said. “It has taken over the world, really.”
Said Bell: “Everything has changed. Who’d have thought this? The people, the money, the tickets? But I’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it.”