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Super Bowl Origins: Part 1

NFL championship game has become a national holiday

Coach Lombardi After Super Bowl Victory
Coach Lombardi After Super Bowl Victory

The Super Bowl is an unofficial national holiday affectionately entitled “Super Sunday.”

It is also the biggest food production day in the food retail business. One in every six televisions is bought just prior to the game. Snack companies increase production of potato and tortilla chips in anticipation of higher sales. Pizza delivery companies hire more drivers and sell more pies than at any other time of the year. The big game sends sales of beer, soda, chips, guacamole, salsa and dip through the roof.

NFL: JAN 30 Super Bowl LII Preview - US Bank Stadium Food
A general view of the food available for Super Bowl LII on January 30, 2018, at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Super Sunday is the third-largest alcohol consumption celebration behind New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day. One in four workers will participate in a game pool while Super Sunday weekend is the slowest for wedding bookings.

Two professional football leagues create a financial strain

The game was created from the merger negotiations between the established National Football League (NFL) and the younger American Football League (AFL). From the AFL’s inception in 1960, the upstart coalition had pestered the NFL to have a championship game between the two leagues. Because at the time Major League Baseball was the king of sports, the AFL owners forecast an American League versus National League type of World Series.

But all the NFL wanted was for the AFL to just go away. The established league always propagated that the younger entity was inferior - and in fact a minor football league. The last thing the NFL wanted was a championship game that might verify that their new rivals were supposedly an equal.

Both leagues had their own championship games and league champions every season.

American Football League logo

Although they had a “gentleman’s agreement” not to touch each other’s veterans that were under contract, they fought mightily for rookie players. The end result was that salaries escalated out of control. Suddenly, seasoned veterans were making much less than their rookie teammates to which when their contracts were up, they had the leverage to not only gain a larger salary, but a much bigger contract.

So, when the two leagues finally decided to merge into one entity in 1965 and cease the bidding wars and salary escalation, things began to change between the two leagues even though they would not become one until the 1970 season.

For starters, a common draft was instituted. Secondly, a common preseason schedule was put into place pitting AFL clubs against NFL teams in meaningless exhibition games. And most importantly, a World Series of Football was designed to pit league champs against each other.

Super Bowl beginnings

In 1966, both the AFL and NFL had their own league title games. The Kansas City Chiefs, coached by Hank Stram, were that league’s best team with an 11-2-1 record and then dominated the Buffalo Bills 31-7 in the AFL Championship Game. The winner’s share was $5,308. Meanwhile over in the NFL, that league’s number one team was the Green Bay Packers with Vince Lombardi as their head coach with a 12-2-0 record. They faced and defeated the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 in the NFL Championship Game and received a winner’s share of $8,600.

This set up the AFL Champion Chiefs against the NFL Champion Packers.

Kansas City Chiefs v Green Bay Packers
Packers vs. Chiefs “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”

The first game was booked at a neutral site at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. The game was called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” and appeared that every subsequent game from this point on would be called that also.

Tickets ran either $6, $10 or $12. Both leagues had TV contracts in place for this initial contest, so the game was broadcast by two different networks since NBC covered the AFL and CBS was the broadcaster for the NFL. The arrangement allowed both networks to share the same video feed but would use their own booth commentators.

While setting up to cover the big game, tensions between the technical crews became so intense that a temporary fence was installed to separate the two. A blip later appeared between the two networks after the first half. The second half kickoff only was televised on CBS because NBC was still in commercial. The referee then ordered a re-kick.

The Coliseum held 93,607 while the game sold only 61,946 tickets despite a local blackout. The winner would receive $15,000 per player while the loser’s share was exactly half.

The referee crew was an equal blend of officials from both leagues and featured a new uni style that did not reflect the uniforms either league used to promote parity. When the Chiefs were on offense, the officials used an AFL Spalding ball while the NFL’s Wilson football was utilized when the Packers had the ball on offense.

For reasons of not retaining archives on expensive film and thus taping over the content, neither network saved the footage of the game. NFL Films did retain some footage but not in play-by-play format. However, in 2016 the league made an announcement that they had pieced together the entire game in all of its 145 plays through different film sources.

Lombardi would tell others later that he felt intense pressure to win those first two games because he was not only representing his ballclub, but the entire NFL as a whole to succeed.

After the Packers destroyed the Chiefs 35-10 and then the 1967 AFL Champion Oakland Raiders 33-14 in the first two “AFL-NFL World Championship Games”, it became the buzz as to whether the AFL was indeed a minor league outfit and what was going to happen when these inferior clubs become a part of the fabric of the NFL beginning in 1970? Was the merger idea a bad decision, especially for the older, more established NFL?

Joe Namath Calls Signals in Line-Up
Super Bowl III- New York Jets led by QB Joe Namath defeat the favored Baltimore Colts

But the third and fourth installments answered all concerns as the 1968 AFL Champs New York Jets defeated the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts 16-7 and the following season the 1969 AFL Champion Chiefs went back to the big game and this time netted a convincing 23-7 thrashing over the Minnesota Vikings.

Those first four games, the trophy commissioned by Tiffany & Company was inscribed “World Professional Football Championship” but at the time was unnamed. The original design was not molded out of clay with meticulous sculpting, but instead was a football taped to a box of Corn Flakes cereal.

Later, the game itself would get a new moniker while the championship trophy would finally have a name of its own, but only through saddening results.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association