Regardless of which team you supported in this year’s Super Bowl, or if you supported one at all, the hype surrounding this past Sunday was inescapable, trapping fans and non-fans alike in a whirlwind of tailgates, parties and beer commercials. In an event that can be likened more to a national holiday than a sporting event, Super Bowl Sunday has become representative of a distinctly American heritage.
The origin of our modern obsession with American football actually starts quite close to us here at Wellesley. Less than twenty miles away stands the sport’s initial powerhouse, Harvard University, once the site of a dominant collegiate team. For students at the institution, the activity allowed them to flaunt their brawn and fortitude and to prove themselves. In an era where most of their close relatives had been soldiers in the Civil War, it was important for young men to demonstrate their own abilities and prowess in athleticism and strategy. Football was a form of validation for the men at Harvard and its rival, Yale.
The beginnings of the National Football League occurred during the 1920s when the teams of Ohio joined together at Canton to form the American Professional Football Conference. Initially, teams were awarded championship titles based on a win-loss record, which was often an inaccurate representation of skill and sportsmanship. Contrary to popular belief, football did not always hold the allure that it boasts today. Early leagues often closed due to a lack of fans and interest, and the new consortium was no exception. For over a decade after its formation, the American Professional Football Conference was poorly organized and not considered a major sport. In addition, most people followed college football more closely than professional football.
After World War II, viewership slowly shifted towards the professional league. New formations allowed for faster, more exciting gameplay. Furthermore, the group expanded to the West Coast, nationalizing the sport. Perhaps most importantly though was the 1958 championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. Not only has the match been referred to as “the greatest game ever played” but also was the first televised game, watched by an estimated 45 million people.
The first Super Bowl, as we know it today, took place in 1966 between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, the champions of the National Football League and American Football League respectively, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Over 61,946 attendees watched as the Packers crushed the Chiefs 35-10. The game was not lacking in athleticism or entertainment. The halftime show included marching bands, drill teams, majorettes, flying demonstrations, pigeons, a trumpeter and still more. The tradition of festive ceremony continues to this day with an ever-increasing grandeur.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of the modern Super Bowl is the commercials, which are often seen by some as more appealing than the game itself. The earliest series of ads did not quite capture the controversy, humor or sentimentality of the ones we watch today. Indeed, except for a few major standouts, the commercials were relatively normal and uninteresting. As viewership increased, more companies started to purchase slots, and prices shot up. The tradition of Super Bowl commercials emerged from a need for companies to distinguish themselves from the rest, with early precedents being the “Hey Kid, Catch” ad from Coca-Cola or “1984” from Apple. Thirty seconds of airtime often costs millions of dollars, with companies such as Budweiser, Doritos and others producing a number of these segments. Video streaming sites such as YouTube have added to the hype of the commercials, allowing people to view them in advance and to debate about them long after the game. Competitions for the best advertisement or TV specials on past promotions have created a culture of inventing the hilarious and unpredictable advertisements that air nowadays. Indeed, many people watch the event solely for the commercials, which have taken the place of early between-quarter entertainment.
Whether you watched this year’s Super Bowl with dedication or simply read a recap the next day, the game has evolved into a national phenomenon. In the coming years, it seems that football will continue to grow in popularity and may perpetually be the real “American pastime.”