Sunday, January 15, 2012

The First Super Bowl

Super Bowl Sunday is firmly established as perhaps the biggest social event of any year.

It's so well established, in fact, that it is almost certainly difficult for most people to imagine a time when there was no Super Bowl. But there was.

The first Super Bowl was played 45 years ago today. It wasn't called the Super Bowl at the time. It was generally known as the AFL–NFL World Championship Game; some media reports called it the Supergame. Later on, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt came up with the name it is known by today — Super Bowl.

But that's another story.

What it was, actually, was the Establishment vs. the Upstarts. The Establishment was the NFL, appropriately represented by the Green Bay Packers — who, incidentally, will be hosting the New York Giants in the playoffs later today. The Upstarts, the AFL teams, had only existed for a few years, but, like a presidential challenger who is given an opportunity to stand on a level playing field as the president's equal in a debate, they were eager to make the most of it.

Unfortunately for the AFL's representatives, the Chiefs, things never really went their way. That didn't surprise most people. The Packers came into the game as 14–point favorites and exceeded expectations with a 25–point margin of victory.

I guess it goes without saying that a lot of things have changed in 45 years. That's probably a classic understatement applicable to any time, any year in recorded history, and it's certainly true of the Super Bowl.

The game that was played 45 years ago today really bore little resemblance to the spectacle that the Super Bowl has become. The difference in the name is probably the least of the changes.

In fact, if a football fan could be magically transported back to January 1967, that fan would be in for quite a case of culture shock.

Oh, to be sure, it would look like the same game in many ways — same field dimensions, same rules (mostly), same uniforms (although their designs as well as their construction certainly have changed).

The first thing a modern fan probably would notice would be an absence of hype surrounding that first Super Bowl. It was really more of a curiosity. I mean, everyone just knew that the NFL's team would beat the AFL's team. The superiority of the NFL was obvious. Nearly all of the best college football players went on to play for NFL teams.

At that time, I think the only truly high–profile college player who had signed with an AFL team was Joe Namath — and Namath did go on to win an early Super Bowl, legitimizing the league in the eyes of many. But that was still in the future on this day in 1967.

Super Bowl I was unique in other ways.
  • It is the only Super Bowl to be broadcast on two TV networks, NBC and CBS. NBC had the rights to AFL games; CBS had the rights to NFL games.

    Subsequent Super Bowl broadcast rights have been granted to only one network each year, although the network has varied depending upon the arrangement. Forty–five years ago, it was decided that the best solution was to permit both networks to carry the game.

  • Very little video footage from that first Super Bowl survives to this day, even though two networks carried it.

    There was a broadcasting procedure at the time called wiping, in which videotape of a previous program was taped over. Usually — but not always — this was done with tapes of programs that weren't expected to have much value in the future.

    It is, perhaps, indicative of just how low expectations for the game were that both networks chose to recycle their videotapes instead of preserving them.

  • Considering how difficult it is to acquire tickets to a Super Bowl today, it certainly would surprise some modern fans to know that the very first Super Bowl was not a sellout.

    It was still possible on game day to walk up to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the game was played, and pay $12 for admission to the game. Those were the days, huh?

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