By Michael MacCambridge
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:00 AM
"If Jesus Christ were alive today," minister Norman Vincent Peale said in 1974, "he'd be at the Super Bowl." The comment was audacious then, but it seems almost self-evident now. Pro football is perhaps the last of the great mass entertainments in America, and the Super Bowl has become the embodiment of our nation: big, convivial, gaudy, passionate and, surely, self-important. This is the weekend when Americans hold the fewest weddings and the most parties. And like a lot of quintessential American institutions, the game inspires numerous myths.1. The game wasn't called the "Super Bowl" until 1969.
When the established National Football League merged with the upstart American Football League in June 1966, football fans finally got their wish - a showdown was planned between the two league champions, billed as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Later that summer, AFL founder Lamar Hunt sent a memo to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suggesting that the merged leagues should coin a phrase for the new game. "I have kiddingly called it the Super Bowl," Hunt wrote, "which obviously can be improved upon."
Rozelle, with his background in journalism and PR, never cared for the name, deeming it unsophisticated. But even before the first game was played, Hunt's title swept through the football, news media and advertising worlds. By the end of 1966, network executives were referring to the day of the first game as "Super Sunday." After Hunt's Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Buffalo Bills in the AFL Championship Game, the next day's Kansas City Star headline declared that the Chiefs were "Super Bowl Bound." In Los Angeles, on the morning of Jan. 15, 1967, an NFL Films crew member could be heard giving a sound cue - "Super Bowl, reel one" - before shooting the first pregame footage at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The league held out for a few years before Rozelle conceded. "Super Bowl" first appeared on the program cover of the third game and on the tickets of the fourth game. Few fans noticed; they'd been calling it the Super Bowl since the first one was played.2. It's the world's most-watched sports event.
Last year's Super Bowl was the most-watched program in U.S. television history, viewed by an estimated 153 million Americans - more people than voted in the 2008 presidential election. The game is broadcast in dozens of countries (though often edited or on tape-delay), and if you massage the numbers a bit, you can make a case that an additional 20 million to 30 million people outside the United States watch the game live.
But even that optimistic estimate can't approach the audience for soccer's quadrennial biggest game, the World Cup final. Last summer, FIFA projected some 700 million viewers for the final match, in which Spain defeated the Netherlands in South Africa. Even the annual UEFA Champions League final, the world's biggest club-soccer competition, probably has a wider live global audience than the Super Bowl. The NFL is making gains around the globe, but the rest of the world still watches the game it calls football a lot more avidly than the game we call football.3. The crowd attending the game is corporate and uninvolved.
In the 1970s, when corporations were sucking up tickets right and left, the game became a cherished destination for well-pampered, big-money clients, as well as a coveted prize for hard-working sales reps who led the tri-state area in commissions. These fans didn't much care who won; they just enjoyed the free vacation.
But while some of those people still attend, the Internet age has made it easier to buy and sell tickets for any game. And that means that the people who most want to go to the Super Bowl - the fans of the two teams playing - find ways to get there, no matter the price.
The NFL designates that 35 percent of the tickets are to be divided equally between the two teams in the game, but the past decade has seen significantly more partisan support getting into stadiums. At Super Bowl XL in 2006, Steeler Nation dominated the crowd at Detroit's Ford Field, turning it into a de facto home game for Pittsburgh. Many of those fans will be in Dallas on Sunday, but they'll have had a harder time snagging stray tickets than in recent Super Bowls against the Seahawks and the Cardinals. Packers fans have a history of traveling in large numbers - and they've been waiting 13 years to get back to the big game. Look for more than half of Cowboys Stadium to be decked out in green-and-gold or gold-and-black.4. It's the best day of the year to be a pro football fan.
It's certainly the best day to be a fan of the winning team. But for most NFL purists, the Super Bowl is not as beloved as a few other days on the calendar.
For sheer excitement, it's hard to beat the build-up to the first round of the NFL draft each April, when fans argue passionately over the merits of college stars they know relatively little about, convinced that their favorite team is one or two players away from taking the next step to greatness.
The final weeks of the regular season are always pregnant with playoff implications, and they are even more urgently followed these days, as fantasy-football players turn Weeks 16 and 17 into shadow Super Bowls for their geek leagues.
But among the people with football in their DNA - executives, coaches, retired players and true believers - the best day is two weeks before the Super Bowl, the Sunday of the conference championship games. It's the purest expression of pro football: immense contests played in staunchly partisan home stadiums, in an environment focused on the games themselves. When we're lucky, like this year, those games are played outdoors, on natural grass, in brutal weather - a reminder that both playing and watching football should be an ordeal now and then.5. The game is usually a letdown.
Sixteen of the first 22 Super Bowls were decided by 10 points or more, and many of those games were outright runaways, with the result not in doubt past the first quarter. Some people took to calling the game the Super Bore. But that trend is decades old. More recently, the games have been terrific.
Five of the last nine Super Bowls have been decided by four points or less, and even last year's 31-17 win by the Saints over the Colts had seemed destined to become the first-ever Super Bowl to go to sudden-death overtime before Tracy Porter's 74-yard interception return gave the Saints a two-touchdown lead with 3:12 left.
Such narrow margins have become common in an era when the salary cap and free agency have helped create unprecedented competitive balance in the league. That structure will be at stake in the pending collective-bargaining negotiation between players and owners - and that will become the big story in football hours after Super Bowl XLV is final.
Michael MacCambridge is the author of "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation."
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