From curiosity to behemoth, the Super Bowl keeps getting bigger

Tom Landry is carried off the Louisiana Superdome field after the Cowboys beat the Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII for their second championship.
Tom Landry is carried off the Louisiana Superdome field after the Cowboys beat the Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII for their second championship. AP

For all the integral human advancements over the course of world history, often left out of the discussion are the great minds of the NFL past who after more than 2,000 years mastered the civilization of ancient Rome.

The biggest annual convention of the rich and powerful and bourgeois alike who celebrate the prowess of the new national pastime occurs next week with the gathering in Phoenix for Super Bowl XLIX.

The Super Bowl is no longer merely a spectacle of the NFL but of America, and the proof is not only in the excess but in the statistics (and commercials) we’ve all grown to obsess over.

As a culture, we’ve traveled great distances since Jan. 15, 1967, and away from baseball in terms of most favorite leisure activity.

While tickets for Super Bowl I at the Los Angeles Coliseum cost $6, $10 and $12, the average price for admission to next Sunday’s game between New England and Seattle is in the neighborhood of $3,900. According to the Nielsen ratings, a U.S. television-record 112 million watched last year’s game.

By contrast, 31.7 million watched last week’s State of the Union address, according to Nielsen. No doubt many of those likely watched simply because they had no choice when regular programming was pre-empted.

“Super Bowl I had about as much impact on the city of Los Angeles as the Oregon State-USC game played earlier that year,” said Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ director of player personnel for three decades and today an NFL Draft analyst who has seen all but two of the games in person. “I don’t think anybody — and I don’t care how farsighted you are — saw coming what this has come to.

“It’s come from a one-story motel in some remote town in West Texas to the Sears Tower and still growing.”

It’s come so far that some have even pitched the idea of a “sports holiday” the day after the Super Bowl. It’s an idea that has never taken root, and there seems no real enthusiasm to pursue an off day to essentially heal a liquor-and-food hangover.

That includes politicians, who, believe it or not, cross the aisle that day and join hands without the lure of compromise.

U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, are Cowboys fans with conviction and no political courage needed to announce it.

“The first Super Bowl I remember was Cowboys vs. Steelers in ’79,” Veasey said. “I can still remember sitting near the front of the TV when Jackie Smith dropped that ball.”

Said Barton, who has attended three Super Bowls, that was a “football move:” “Dallas should be playing in the Super Bowl next week.”

How did all of this happen? The roots are instinctive, traceable to the great sports spectacles that precede the 21st century by more than 21 centuries.

We see it as a critical element in the antiquities of Rome with the gladiator battles and chariot races. There are many similarities, even with the concrete stadium structures built vertically, though many differences, too, said Donald Kyle, a professor of antiquities at UT Arlington.

Long before AT&T Stadium, the Circus Maximus was Rome’s entertainment center, capable of holding more than 200,000 spectators.

The spectacles of ancient Rome were opportunities for the everyman to get out of his humble surroundings and associate with the political and power classes, Kyle said. All of the events in those days were put on by the government, so one had a real good chance to see even the Caesar.

“That’s the essence of spectacle: something to see,” Kyle said. “The Romans held spectacles to see and be seen. And you got to go back from wherever you were from and tell the story of what happened. You gained a little status because you got to tell who won.

“This is fundamental in human nature. We like thrills and a little danger. That hasn’t changed in human development. It’s part of human nature. And when we deny it we’re fooling ourselves.”

Though the NFL borrowed the Roman numerals, unlike their early predecessors who lost fortunes on their sports habits, the men and women of the NFL have flourished because of good business and economics, and technology.

The NFL, led by visionaries such as former commissioner Pete Rozelle and Tex Schramm, has used the implements of technology better than anybody else. It also has a made-for-TV product.

Rozelle also set a precedent for financial fairness and parity in the very early years, finding consensus among owners to share equally in television revenue. That ensured essentially that major- and small-market teams stood on the same playing field.

Baseball wouldn’t introduce the concept for another 30 years.

The first television contract with CBS in 1962 was in the neighborhood of $5 million and shared by 14 teams. Today 32 teams share in four contracts that generate about $5 billion, or about $156 million per franchise.

The league commands such figures because the audience is that good. And it’s why the Super Bowl commercials are so good: Corporations know they’ll never have a more attentive audience.

It, of course, wasn’t always this way. Of those who had a TV set in 1967, 22 million tuned in for the game telecast by both NBC and CBS. That first year, both showed the game because the former had rights to AFL games, the latter NFL.

Pat Summerall was the CBS sideline reporter. Erin Andrews wasn’t born until a few months after the Cowboys’ second title, Super Bowl XII.

Many of the major players of the AFL and NFL didn’t even speak to each other, as Rozelle’s commissioner’s party illustrated.

“On one side was all the AFL people and on the other side were the NFL people,” Brandt said. “One woman with an AFL team — I think the Jets — was giving all sorts of pep talks to her constituency.

“There were lots of feelings one against the other. I think there still is a rivalry and a lot of pride that exists.”

The crowd that day, the Star-Telegram reported, was smaller than expected and far short of the sellout originally expected. In fact, 63,036 were there, leaving thousands of empty seats in the 90,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum.

A good barometer of the increase of interest in the Super Bowl is through newspapers. Newspapers devoted only a few stories to the first game, a number that increased to several pages for the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XII victory.

While millions continue to read, thousands are expected to actually attend this week’s media day at University of Phoenix Stadium. The NFL sells tickets for spectators.

“In 1979, we played Pittsburgh in Miami,” Brandt said. “A reporter would come by the pool and ask for, say, ‘Mike Hegman.’ Our PR guy might say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s not down here, but he’s in Room 676. You can go up there and talk to him in Room 676.’”

That’s also why Joe Namath’s famous guarantee occurred not at media day but at a reception a few days before Super Bowl III. Namath’s assertion was the first big opportunity for the growth of the Super Bowl, Brandt said.

It was the type of bold, brash announcement that appealed instantly to our instincts.

Like the ancients, Kyle said, we know a good show.

And what better for a good show than music. The Super Bowl’s halftime concerts evolved from marching bands in the early games. That changed permanently after Fox tried to pull a fast one during Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, counter-programming the big game by airing a live episode of In Living Color during halftime.

It worked, drawing tens of millions of viewers.

So the Super Bowl brought in entertainment’s brawn. The next year, when the Cowboys won the first of their three titles in the 1990s, Michael Jackson ensured any other such attempt would be squashed.

That began a tradition, much like the Super Bowl parties millions will host when partygoers will stop with their normal routines and escape.

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