How The Super Bowl Became “The Big Game”

Spoiler Alert: You can blame brands for making the Super Bowl culturally ubiquitous

Party God Rob Gronkowski — Getty Images
Feb 01, 2016 at 11:58 AM ET

Fifty years ago, as the Packers demolished the Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl I, some 30,000 seats in the 100,000-capacity Los Angeles Coliseum remained empty. The Tuesday before the game, the NFL said over 40,000 seats remained. A group of burglars who ransacked the Kansas City Chiefs front office the previous weekend left the team’s hoard of Super Bowl tickets untouched. The first Super Bowl was a non-event, so much so that no official footage was saved by the television networks.

Now, the Super Bowl is both the biggest night on the American sports calendar and the American television calendar, a glorious celebration of our nation’s unique brand of excess. It is one of the strongest brands in a nation where brands rule all.

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The Super Bowl has even become synonymous with “The Big Game.” So synonymous, in fact, that the NFL even made a failed attempt to trademark the phrase itself in 2007 to prevent dastardly small businesses from advertising their Super Bowl Sunday deals in local papers and TV spots—too bad the XFL beat them to it.

A petition to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday even received over 17,000 online signatures, suggesting such an action would “promote camaraderie among the American people, keep the streets safer for our children on Sunday night and Monday morning, promote a productive workplace when work resumes on Tuesday, and honor the most popular event in modern American culture.”

Alas, we’ll have to keep waiting for National Hangover Day, but the Super Bowl’s pull is so universal that writers and commentators now routinely refer to Super Bowl Sunday as an unofficial national holiday.

The oldest such reference I could uncover came 15 years after Super Bowl I, in a 1981 Rolling Stone feature on Bill Murray telling the tale of his surprise wedding to Mickey Kelly: “It was the day before Super Bowl Sunday, which he considers a national holiday.” Two years later, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update joked that a missing Air Force One would be secondary news to Super Bowl Sunday. (There’s even some classic SNL racism from Joe Piscopo.)

Still, it took some time for the Super Bowl to earn its prestige. When the Packers destroyed the Chiefs in the inaugural game it was seen by many as proof that the senior NFL severely outclassed the upstart AFL. Before Super Bowl II, which pitted the Packers against the Oakland Raiders, Vince Lombardi told his team, “You damn better well not let that Mickey Mouse league beat you. It’d be a disgrace, a complete, utter disgrace.”

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Green Bay dominated once again, 33-14. It took the combination of Joe Namath’s bravado and his AFL Jets’ unlikely victory over the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III to prove it could bring the drama necessary to create the kind of must-see-TV it is today.

Critically, Super Bowl III proved the game could hook a huge audience and glue its eyes to the screen. The cost of a 30-second advertising slot jumped from $55,000 for Super Bowl III to $78,200 for Super Bowl IV as the Jets’ win over the Colts increased the game’s legitimacy and claim to genuine drama.

Shortly after, the Super Bowl commercial—unique spots designed specifically for airing during the big game to drum up discussion of a brand—was invented. The most notable early version was this 1973 advertisement for Noxzema shaving cream in which Namath himself gets “creamed” by a then-unknown Farrah Fawcett:

It was an event, the kind of thing that fueled the “water cooler” talk advertising executives slobber over. The very next year, in 1974, a 30-second advertising slot during the Super Bowl sold for over $100,000 for the first time. Minister Norman Vincent Peale said that year, “If Jesus Christ were alive today, he’d be at the Super Bowl.”

As brands began to put more and more effort and production value into their advertisements, the spectacle of the Super Bowl commercials became as much an event as the game itself. For Apple’s famous 1984 spot introducing the Macintosh computer, they went so far as to bring in Ridley Scott, who had already directed “Blade Runner” and “Alien.”

Between 1975 and 1985, over 15 million new households purchased televisions and the cost of 30 seconds of precious Super Bowl airtime had skyrocketed to $525,000. Roughly 85 million people watched in 1985, and the big game has continued to draw somewhere between 70 and 100 million viewers per year and at least a 60 share in the ratings.

In 2004, Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, told the Associated Press that the Super Bowl matchup barely matters. He said the difference between a close game and a blowout would probably only be around three ratings points—less than a five percent swing.

“The rating is pretty much bulletproof,” McManus said. The entire American business world, faced with the prospect of going against the Super Bowl and its massive captive audience, has decided, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’

Simply put, the Super Bowl dominates television, and its growth since those early days parallels the growth of television’s influence in American life. In 1965, the average American household watched 5.5 hours of television per day; by 1985, that number was up to 7.2 hours, and by 2005 it was 8.2 hours.

With its early popularity, primarily influenced by the drama of Super Bowl III, the NFL managed to stake ownership of the entire day. Nowhere else in American society is there such a guarantee that so many eyeballs will be in one place for such an extended period of time. Consider that Super Bowl now lasts the entire day.

Thanks to television’s ever-increasing power to reach such a gigantic audience, the Super Bowl halftime show escalated from lame marching band fare to courting the most popular artists in the world. The “Big Game” became a marketing event for everyone from potato chip companies to erectile dysfunction consultants. There are even eventss piggybacking off the game—the Lingerie Bowl and the Puppy Bowl come to mind—and Super Sunday has become the biggest bar party day of the year.

Within five years of Namath’s delivery on his Super Bowl III guarantee, advertisers had fully turned the game into an event. As both television’s influence and audience grew, the Super Bowl subsumed parts of every bit of American culture, offering something for sports fans, social butterflies, degenerate gamblers, music lovers, animal lovers, old men with bad dicks, and anybody else you could possibly think of.

The Super Bowl’s brand domination was so swift we barely noticed the NFL’s complete takeover of a full day on our calendar, year in and year out. To us, it’s just Super Sunday.