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Origin of the Super Bowl - Part 1

NFL championship game has become a national holiday

Super Bowl I - Kansas City Chiefs vs Green Bay Packers - January 15, 1967 Photo by James Flores/Getty Images

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 assorted dips through the roof.

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.

Professional football throughout its history had always parlayed whatever Major League Baseball (MLB) did. They were the king of sports and Americans followed it intensely. MLB had two leagues and at the end of the year the two participated in a championship structure called the World Series.

The NFL was considered the “National League” in pro football, and their AFL counterparts envisioned their entity as the “American League” which needed a championship game at season’s end.

However, there was a huge difference. With MLB, both leagues were under the same umbrella. With the NFL and AFL, they were separate leagues with separate financial structures and governorship by-laws.

What the NFL wanted most was for the AFL to fold up their tents and just go away. The established league always propagated that the younger entity was inferior - and in fact was 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. Just wasn’t going to happen.

Both leagues had their own league championship games and crowned their own champions every season. The AFL wasn’t a minor league nor was it a developmental league or some sort of farm system for the NFL. It was an NFL rival league.

Although the two entities 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 for the new rookie players escalated out of control because the AFL offered more contract money. A lot more. The NFL standard was that rookies made the least (no matter what round they were drafted in) and the longer you played, the more money you made.

Jim Brown Takes On Two Steelers
1960 Cleveland Browns: Jim Brown (#32) against Pittsburgh Steelers
Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

Suddenly, seasoned veterans were making much less than their rookie teammates. In the past when a player’s contract was up for renewal, he was at the mercy of his respective team as to how much of an increase he would receive. Now with the AFL as an option, veterans suddenly had leverage. Not only to get more than a rookie playing the same position, but all they had to do was call clubs in the AFL and get an offer that was higher than what their NFL club was willing to pay.

Within the first five years of the AFL’s existence, player salaries had increased as much as triple. An average player in the NFL in 1960 averaged around $8,000 a year. For comparison, MLB players made $18,000. But the AFL was paying an average of $12,500 a year. By 1965, players in both leagues were now receiving $25,000-$35,000 or more depending on his playing position. And there weren’t any bonuses or incentives or guaranteed money back then.

Something had to give. Clubs in both leagues were going into the red every year.

The two leagues finally decided to merge into one entity beginning in 1966 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 salary structure for rookies and veterans was instituted. Thirdly, a common preseason schedule was put into place pitting AFL clubs against NFL teams in exhibition games. And most importantly, a World Series of Football was designed to pit the National League champs against the American League champs.

The AFL-NFL World Championship Game

From 1960 through 1969, both the AFL and NFL had their own league title games. This meant, each league had their own league champion. Each league also operated independently from each other.

From the agreement period from 1966 to 1969, there was an AFL Champion and an NFL Champion each year. Beginning in 1970, there would be only one champion.

In 1966, the Kansas City Chiefs were the AFL’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.

That same season, over in the NFL that league’s number one team was the Green Bay Packers with a 12-2-0 record. They faced the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Championship Game and defeated the Cowboys 34-27. Their winner’s share was $8,600.

This set up the AFL Champion Chiefs against the NFL Champion Packers. The first pro football World Series would begin, except this sport had a single contest for the big game instead of a series of multiple games.

Ticket stub first 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 their own television broadcast contracts. NBC covered the AFL while CBS was the broadcaster for the NFL. It was decided that both networks would broadcast the first installment. The arrangement allowed both networks to share the same video feed but each league 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 was televised on CBS but NBC was still in a commercial break. The referee then ordered a re-kick.

The Coliseum held 93,607 but 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.

AFL referee uniforms

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 football 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.

The Packers destroyed the Chiefs 35-10 in the first “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”

The following year, the Oakland Raiders were the AFL Champion while Green Bay once again won the NFL title. They would face off in the 1967 “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”, the second in this series. The Packers once again dominated as they defeated the Raiders 33-14.

After the second installment in this championship series, with Green Bay (as representatives of the NFL) dominating in both games, it became the buzz as to whether the AFL was indeed a minor league outfit.

Had the NFL made a huge mistake in agreeing to merge with the AFL’s 10 teams two years from now? Should the NFL renege and continue on as a 16-team entity and hope that the AFL would somehow eventually fold? These were actual questions raised at the next NFL owner’s meeting. After all, the NFL was about to become 50-years old whereas the AFL was still considered an upstart.

Original tickets for first three games all imprinted “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”

But the third and fourth installments answered all concerns.

In the third “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”, the 1968 NFL champs Baltimore Colts were favored by 18 points. The AFL champion New York Jets defeated them 16-7.

In a related situation, in 1969 the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings and their “Purple People Eaters” defense were 13.5 point favorites, but lost to the AFL champs Chiefs 23-7 in a game that was never close.

The last two games were similar. Except the fourth game had a new name.

The “Super Bowl.”

Editor’s note: Part 2 published Friday February 11th