Most of you have probably noticed that I don't write much about sports in this blog. The reason for that is simple. I don't consider sports to be a part of pop culture and this is a blog dedicated to pop culture. That having been said, the Super Bowl would seem to be an exception. Long ago Super Bowl Sunday practically became a national holiday here in the United States. And for quite some time the Super Bowl has generally been the highest rated event on American television. While I won't be watching this year's game (if the St. Louis Rams aren't playing, then I simply am not interested), I know that many Americans will be.
As to how the Super Bowl became such a major event, that is a rather long story. As the National Football League (NFL) has existed since 1920, quite obviously the Super Bowl was not the first incarnation of the NFL Championship. The first official NFL championship was held in 1933. That year the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants 23 to 21. It would be the founding of the American Football League (AFL) in 1959 that would lead to the transformation of the NFL Championship into the Super Bowl. Formed after the NFL declined to add expansion teams, the AFL proved to be a successful rival to the older, better established NFL. The intense rivalry between the two leagues would create problems for both the AFL and NFL, problems that they finally decided to resolve through a merger. As part of the merger agreement, it was decided that they would play an AFL-NFL World Championship Game each year (with the merger made official in 1970, the game would be come the NFL Championship, with the teams of the AFL becoming the American Football Conference of the NFL). It was Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt who coined the term "Super Bowl." Noticing his daughter's Super Ball one day (another fad courtesy of Wham-O), he decided that the "Super Bowl" would be a good term for the championship game. Needless to say, the name stuck.
Of course, none of this explains how the Super Bowl became an American tradition. As might be expected, the game has always garnered high Nielsen ratings. Super Bowl I held in 1967 received a Nielsen rating of 40.3 (it was also the only Super Bowl simulcast on two networks--both NBC and CBS). The ratings for the Super Bowl would remain good throughout the early Seventies, but if there was a year when one could truly say that the Super Bowl became an outright phenomenon, it might well have been 1978. That year around 78,940,000 viewers tuned into the game, up from 62,050,000 the previous year. From that point the Super Bowl would only grow in the number of viewers who watched it, reaching an all time high in 1996 when 94,080,000 viewers watched the game.
Another indicator of the Super Bowl's growing influence in American society could be its halftime shows. The first Super Bowl's halftime show simply consisted of the University of Arizona and University of Michigan marching bands. Marching bands would remain the norm at Super Bowl halftime shows until 1970 when Carol Channing performed. For many years afterwards the Super Bowl halftime shows would consist of performers ranging from Louis Armstrong to Up with People to Chubby Checker. The turning point when Super Bowl halftime shows truly became what they were today was perhaps 1991, when the New Kids on the Block and various Disney characters performed. This halftime show is unique in that it was the only one which was not broadcast live. Because of coverage from Desert Storm, the show was recorded and shown in edited form in the post game show. Since then performers ranging from Gloria Estefan to Michael Jackson to U2 to Paul McCartney to The Rolling Stones have performed at the Super Bowl halftime show. Of course, the most notorious halftime show was probably the one performed at Super Bowl XXXVIII. It was during that halftime show that an alleged "wardrobe malfunction" resulted in one of Janet Jackson's breasts being exposed.
Another signpost of the growing popularity of the Super Bowl over the years is that commercials aired during the Super Bowl have become a phenomenon unto themselves. For the first Super Bowl the price for commercials was only $40,000--that's $245,350 in 2007 U.S. dollars. By 1983 that amount would be $400,000, or $824,936 in 2007 U.S. dollars. By 1995 the amount charged for Super Bowl ads would break the million mark. As to the commercials themselves, the first truly interesting Super Bowl ad would air in 1973, when Farrah Fawcett would lather Joe Namath up with Noxzema Shaving Cream. If there was a point when Super Bowl adverts took on a life of their own, it was perhaps in 1984. It was that year that Apple's commercial for the then new Macintosh computer aired during Super Bowl XVIII. Directed by Ridley Scott and taking a good deal from George Orwell's 1984, it became one of the most iconic commercials of all time. Advertising Age named it the Commercial of the Decade for the Eighties, while TV Guide named it the greatest television commercial of all time in their 50 Greatest TV Commercials.
Since then there have been several notable Super Bowl Commercials. Anheuser-Busch introduced their first Bud Bowl spot in 1989, in which beer bottles and cans played their own game. Anheuser-Busch would make history again in 1995 when they introduced the controversial Budweiser Frogs (who would be later accused by some of encouraging children to drink...). Nissan also turned to animals to sell their Maxima in 1997. The advert featured a flock of pigeons plotting to, um, air bomb a Maxima, constantly missing their mark until they slam into a car door. It was in 2000 (that was the Super Bowl that the Rams won) that one of my favourite Super Bowl commercials of all time aired. It was a commercial for Electronic Data Systems (EDS) featuring cowboys who herd cats. Hundreds of cats. Among the scenes in this hilarious advert are cats being herded across streams, being retrieved from trees, and so on. One cowboy, showing off his scratches from the felines, pointed out that cat herding is dangerous work. Another was shown rolling up a ball of yarn. Another Super Bowl commercial I liked was a 2002 Pepsi spot in which various people, including Bob Dole, become transfixed by Britney Spears. Now I don't like Pepsi (I am a Coke drinker) and I am not a Britney fan, but I must say I love any commercial in which Bob Dole is in lust with Britney Spears... Another commercial I love is another Pepsi ad, this one from 2003, in which Ozzy Osbourne has his ultimate nightmare--meeting Donnie and Marie Osmond. I also loved GoDaddy's 2007 Super Bowl commercial, in which it is revealed that their marketing department consists of many sexy, party girls--it takes audacity to be that blatant in using sex to sell one's product (here I must point out that one of their 2006 Super Bowl commercials, "Steamy Car Wash," was rejected for being too sexy). At any rate, Super Bowl commercials have become such a phenomenon that many believe that they might be a bigger attraction than the game themselves. I have to admit, I have thought of simply recording the game and fast forwarding to the commercials (that's if the Rams aren't playing).
It seems to me that while it garnered huge Nielsen ratings from the very beginning, the Super Bowl did not become a national event overnight. Instead, I think it happened gradually over time. First, the Super Bowl's ratings had to go from simply being great to downright fantastic. This had happened by the late Seventies. Second, the commercials would have to become something different from the typical advertisement. This was achieved in 1984 with the commercial for Apple's Macintosh, with such special commercials becoming common by the early Nineties. Finally, the Super Bowl's halftime shows would have to start using big name, even legendary performers. This was also achieved in the early Nineties. It seems to me, then, that the Super Bowl did not virtually become a national holiday of sorts until around 1991 or 1992. It was at that point that all of the factors necessary to turn it into a national celebration were in place: the halftime show, the commercials, and, of course, the game itself.
Of course, while no one can deny the importance of the Super Bowl on the American calendar, there will always be those of us for whom it is no big deal. As I have said earlier, I will only watch the Super Bowl if the St. Louis Rams are playing (which sadly means I have only watched two in the past many years...). This year is no different (I have had TV Land on all day). I must confess, however, that I will take part in the Super Bowl celebration after a fashion. Sometime I will swing over to IFilm and watch this year's crop of Super Bowl commercials. And to think, some people actually think the Super Bowl is about the game....