January 26, 2015 / 9:54 PM / 4 years ago

Super Bowl: from humble origin to king of U.S. sports events

(Reuters) - From modest beginnings of cheap tickets and empty seats to $4.5 million for a 30-second TV ad, the Super Bowl approaches its golden anniversary entrenched as the undisputed king of U.S. sporting events.

Jan 25, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Fans await the Seattle Seahawks before press conference at the Arizona Grand Hotel in preparation for Super Bowl XLIX. at Arizona Grand Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl 49 will pit the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona, on Sunday and figures to join 21 previous Super Bowls atop the list of most watched U.S. TV broadcasts.

A far cry from the first Super Bowl clash between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, according to Jerry Izenberg of the (New Jersey) Star-Ledger, one of only two reporters to have covered ever Super Bowl.

“The 10 dollar ticket and it didn’t sell out,” Izenberg, 84, told Reuters about recollections of the first edition at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Izenberg underscored the lack of hoopla by comparing access to then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle at the 1967 showdown to the State of the NFL news conference now held at Super Bowls, which draw over 6,000 accredited journalists.

Rozelle, busy attending court proceedings to defend the league’s local TV blackout policy to help attendance at the stadium, instead met with about a dozen reporters in his hotel suite prior to the game, the venerable columnist said.

“I learned more from that session than all the others put together. He sat on the couch and you could ask him anything,” said Izenberg, author of “Rozelle: A Biography.”

“The first six years of the Super Bowl, I interviewed guys (players) in their hotel rooms. Just call them up and ask them what would be a good time.”

Now the NFL sells tickets to thousands of fans to watch a massive throng of reporters mill around the combatants at Media Day as the Super Bowl has become more than a football game.

Robert Boland, a professor at New York University’s Sports Management program, said it “has almost everything that attracts someone who is not a football fan.”

Bob Williams, chief executive of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing of Chicago, said: “What’s really unique about the Super Bowl is that it caters to the casual fan.”

Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, noting the ubiquitous Super Bowl parties across the United States, told Reuters: “It’s become a national holiday ... a gathering together of the American public.”

Said Izenberg: “Step by step they turned this thing into a quasi-religious, all-American holiday.”


What began as a transition before a merger of the upstart AFL into the established NFL, the Super Bowl caught the public’s fancy when quarterback Joe Namath of the underdog New York Jets of the AFL guaranteed victory over the Baltimore Colts and delivered a 16-7 win following the 1968 season.

By the 1970 campaign, the Super Bowl was just the NFL title game. The Steelers, Browns and Colts joined AFL teams in an American Football Conference to balance with old NFL teams in a National Football Conference, and winners met in the Super Bowl.

The game’s popularity exploded with glamor teams like the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Steelers dominating.

Over time, huge TV ratings led to more creative commercials to win attention and tickle viewers. Halftime shows morphed from marching band entertainment to must-see superstar extravaganzas.

A turning point came in 1992, after a competing network heavily promoted a special football-themed episode of a sitcom against the halftime show and stole substantial ratings.

“The response was, ‘all right, we have to beef up our halftime,’” said Pilson, now a media consultant and professor at Columbia University.

In 1993, Michael Jackson performed at halftime and the intermission program has been star-studded since.

Ad revenues continue to climb, thanks to social media.

“Twenty years ago, no commercial was ever seen before the game. There were no sneak peeks that are all over the place now,” said Burns.

“Now every Super Bowl advertiser is using social media prior to the game and after the game to promote their brand.”

Expect the Super Bowl to continue to evolve.

“It’s really becoming a festival for a week. I’m not sure we won’t see parties televised with a number of entertainers and concerts,” said Boland, envisioning a week-long, pay-per-view bonanza in the future.

Williams foresees global expansion.

“I think it’s only a matter of time before we see a Super Bowl in London or in China,” he said. “Long term we’re going to see that.”

Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue

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