Some XXXVII years ago…

How the Super Bowl went from a football game to being The Game.

By David Halberstam

As the New England Patriots get set to face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI – Opus reflects on how the Super Bowl became amongst the biggest sporting events in the world. Taken from XL: Super The Bowl Opus, the article below was written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Halberstam shortly before his death in 2007.

When I was much younger, some XXXVII years ago, I did something that was either un-american or very american – I am still not sure which.

Even though I was a moderately obsessed football fan, I turned down a chance to go to Super Bowl III. That weekend in 1969, I was in Miami where the Jets were to play the Colts. I had lectured there on Saturday and one of the members of the lecture committee offered me a free ticket to the game. A very good seat, he assured me. I did not doubt his word, but I turned him down because I wanted to fly back to New York early Sunday morning and watch the game with my pals, Gay Talese, Michael Arlen and the other regulars at our weekly football sessions.

All of us, given the era, were nominally Giants fans, but in this new age of more flexible loyalties (an outgrowth of the sudden expansion of televised sports) we had committed to the Jets in that season of their remarkable ascent, which coincided with the continued, almost tragic, descent of our Giants. We always convened at Talese’s apartment for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he was the first in our group to get a color television, and he had the largest set, maybe 30 inches across. For every game during that season, we each took what had become in effect our assigned seat in the den, the same seat we’d sat in all season. I sat on the main couch, to the far right. I used to call the den Talese Stadium, befitting a sports gathering place in this modern era when television was still so new and so important, and where the game came to us, rather than our having to go to the game. For the Jets-Colts Super Bowl that day we were going to have chili and beer. We were, in other words, like millions of other American men football-centric, beer-centric, pals-centric depicted in those regular-guy commercials of the era; you know, the one in which you only go around once.

The great new American age of home entertainment, when we no longer had to seek entertainment but entertainment sought us, had just begun. Instant replay was available only in your mind, as you re-ran critical plays from memory alone. ESPN did not exist, and a satellite was still a small East European country controlled by the Soviet Union. Sports hype was also in its infancy–Vince Lombardi was still just a coach, not a demi-god or a trophy, and Chris Berman had not yet made Howard Cosell look shy and modest by comparison. Nor was the Super Bowl yet all that super. Though it was the last game of the year, it was still considered somewhat anti-climactic by many of fans and by the players themselves. A Green Bay team that had no identifiable weaknesses, or at least none discovered as yet by its opponents, won the first two Super Bowls by methodically grinding down anybody in its way. After their second victory, over the Raiders, several Packers said the game had been something of a disappointment, that beating Dallas for the NFC title–one of the very best title games in the history of the league–had felt more like the real championship game. The idea of the Super Bowl as the ultimate contest had not yet taken hold.

I was there from the beginning, a kind of pioneer pro football fan. Then the game was picked up by television, another miracle—no matter where you lived, it showed up too, and all you had to do was turn on a set.

Then came Super Bowl III, the Namath Game. On that Sunday back in 1969 the Colts were an 18-point favorite, primarily because they were the NFL’s champions. When Joe Namath guaranteed a Jets victory the press was appalled–it was a violation of the league and the media’s unwritten modesty rules under which a quarterback’s ego was supposed to exist, but was never to be evident. Namath, as brash as he was talented, not only promised to deliver a victory but had the audacity to say that there were five or six quarterbacks in the AFL better than the Colts starter, Earl Morrall. This was the kind of thing you were never supposed to say, even though it was obviously true. I agreed, I thought the betting line was way off–dumb, really. As such I have never thought of the game as such a stunning upset. I believed then as I believe now that in a big game one should never bet against the team with the demonstrably better quarterback, and the immensely talented Namath was just reaching the peak of his powers. Morrall–though he’d been the NFL’s MVP that season–was, at best, a high-end journeyman, and his back-up was the estimable but now greatly diminished John Unitas, the quarterback against whom I still measure all others. It is hard now, all these years later, to remember how good Namath was before his body betrayed him. He was at his best when the game was on the line—probably the closest thing at that time to a direct lineal descendant of the great Unitas, with the same kind of I’ve-come-to-clean-up-this-town-even-if-I-have-only-two-minutes-left-on-the clock iciness. He read defenses well, could throw deep and had so much arm strength that he could throw off his back foot if need be, and he was good at picking up blitzes. He also had very good receivers, and the speed of flanker Don Maynard meant that the Jets would be able to stretch the field against the Colts.

That day the Super Bowl as we know it was born. The Jets were well-coached, they had a sound (if conservative) game plan and they carried it out with a kind of surgical precision. On offense, they played very shrewd ball control with their vastly under-rated back, Matt Snell. Namath took exactly what the Colt defense gave him—a lot of short passes to his receivers and quick drop-offs to his backs. On defense, the Jets secondary cheated, packed in close to the line, dared Morrall to go deep, and intercepted him three times in the first half. The game was something of an execution: the final score was 16–7, but the Jets had been in complete control. What Namath and the Jets proved was that there was now enough parity between the leagues to make this game entertaining. That Sunday the game started the long journey to becoming what is today, The Event, not just in American sports, but in American life, where anyone who seeks society’s measure of his importance can have it confirmed, can go To See and, even more important, To Be Seen. In terms of marking the success of a career, it is the defining event for most American men in this Age of Entertainment.

That alone puts it somewhere up on the level of soccer’s World Cup (held once every four years) as the ultimate sporting event on Earth, because we Americans have such a powerful hold the world of entertainment: We do not seek merely to entertain ourselves, we seek to entertain the world. If television has made the world a global village, then we sing and we dance and we act and we even play sports for the rest of the world to watch and hear. We do not do it just for fun, it’s our real day job; and that’s why young people around the world tend to envy our culture–we appear to be having more fun than anyone else–and why their parents, more dour about the balance between work and play, often despise us. We look like we are at play, even as we work harder and put ourselves under more pressure than ever before. Our greatest export is not cars or machine tools or software, but our popular culture—our music, our movies, our television shows, even our sports. As a nation we live to be entertained, and in the process we have ended up entertaining the world.

The natural, almost inevitable corollary is that, in the process, we have become the world’s experts in marketng, and it stands to reason that our ultimate sporting event is also the ultimate marketing event. If anyone is foolish enough to do a remake of The Graduate, the man at the cocktail party buttonholing the young Dustin Hoffman character should advise him to think “marketing” not “plastics.” In this age even the coaches, who at the beginning of the Entertainment Era made perhaps $100,000 a year and were almost anonymous outside their own zip code (and often within it), can now make $5 million a year and are more often recognizable (and more popular) than their state’s senators.
The fact that America’s ultimate event for spectators is a game makes sense, and that it’s a football game is no surprise. Politics won’t do. It’s al.legedly a non-contact sport and certainly no longer much of a spectator sport–our political conventions are, by and large, devoid of drama and suspense, the outcome decided long in advance, the balloons released at exactly 8:49 p.m., just after the network returns from a commercial break. Besides, while it’s all right to go there to peddle influence, you don’t want to peddle it too openly.

Pete Rozelle was the visionary who saw pro football’s brightest future and understood that he was selling not just a ticket to a game, but the ticket to a certain kind of Super status.

The Oscars won’t do–it’s not really a Guy kind of event, and the resi.dent egos out there in Hollywood are too big for their own good, even bigger than those in the corporate world. A good, true-blue CEO, even if he could score the right number of good tickets for Oscar night, does not want to stand around essentially on the outside looking in on people whose work he does not necessarily admire, whose films he probably has not seen, whose lives he does not emulate, and worst of all, who have no interest in him and what he represents. Nor–and this is important–do many of his most significant customers admire Hollywood people that much. Besides what happens that night is all too predictable–it is not the land of the upset.

Baseball won’t do either–it’s a great sport, but there are as many as seven games to a World Series, and the league does not control the venue for the event. Ditto basketball, still something of an arriviste sport in terms of big-brand commercial labeling and magnetic pull for CEOs. Boxing long ago lost its magic, in no small part because the men who might have been the great heavyweights of today–the men with speed, power, exquisite reflexes and ferocity of purpose–are often now the NFL’s great middle linebackers.

So it’s football–one game, one city, ticket of tickets, winner take all. Just as important, the league picks the site years in advance, so it’s possible to plan an outing far ahead, take five days to celebrate with the right people, invited to the right parties, a chance for them to use the new Gulfstream and to bring along their most favored clients and to flex a certain kind of social and commercial muscle. It’s the perfect package: You get a vacation, a game of unparalleled significance and a tax break.

Pete Rozelle was the prophet of it all, the man who saw the future and understood the possibilities of a marriage between sports, television and the corporate world. He was the visionary NFL commissioner who saw pro football’s brightest future and understood that he was selling not just a ticket to a Super Bowl game, but the ticket to a certain kind of Super status. Who else could get away with sticking Roman numerals on a sporting event? Rozelle was the first great entrepreneur-marketer of the modern sports era, a man whose roots were in public relations and marketing. He was a smart, intuitive man, liked by almost all who dealt with him, who caught and rode the great wave of our era–the coming of network television. The Super Bowl game of today is, more than anything else, what Rozelle wrought. It began as a by-product of the merger between the AFL and the NFL, which was Rozelle’s most pressing business at that moment, but he foresaw the Game’s astonishing possibilities almost immediately. Rozelle’s ultimate goal was not merely a merger of leagues, but one between football and American business, between the NFL and America’s elite, its most successful men. While the players on the field are celebrating their win in a championship game, there are players of a different sort looking down from the stands and the luxury boxes, the winners in American life.

Tom Brady (left), who is looking for a fifth Super Bowl victory at Super Bowl LI, photographed on the Polaroid 20x24 Land Camera. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (right) is presented with a copy of XL Super Bowl The Opus.

The rise of the NFL to this extraordinary position began in the mid-1950s when America became a television nation. Until then professional football was essentially a second-tier sport, almost a minor league game–it had its partisans and they were at once extremely knowledgeable and passionate; they knew how good the game was, but it was still very much a connoisseur’s game. There was something just a bit eccentric about the season-ticket holders in that era. To the degree that football had a major constituency, it was in the college game, in part because there were so many colleges out there, and people could root for their alma maters.
Baseball had long been first in the nation’s hearts, and its almost lan.guid rhythms were ideal for a radio age. The pace was soothing, as were the voices of its best broadcasters. That was an America in which things moved more slowly; professional sports teams traveled on trains instead of planes, and no one talked about a sports market share or disposable income.

Football, by contrast, did not come alive on radio—the medium was ill-suited for its speed and its rare combination of violence and balletic grace. In that era professional football fans saw their favorite game, while fans in other sports more often than not heard theirs. Baseball fit the mood and tastes of pre-World War II America; football was ideal for the postwar boom America, as the nation raced ahead at an ever faster pace in all its endeavors and demanded ever more speed and action in all things, even its entertainment, and when there was ever greater competition for what became known as the entertainment dollar, which was naturally enough in the process of becoming an ever larger part of the GNP. In that era, as the country became connected from one coast to the other by TV’s giant new electronic umbilical cord, the nation gathered every night to watch the news on television, in what CBS reporter Daniel Schorr called “a national evening séance.” Not surprisingly, we stayed at home and we watched at home. Television was connecting the country to itself and seducing it at the same time.

The rapidly expanding networks needed inexpensive programming, Americans always needed a sports fix and the fall schedule was wide-open, as the baseball season back then still ended in early October. And pro football was very good on TV. I was there from the beginning, a kind of pioneer pro football fan in the days before it became fashionable. My father had loved the pro game, and he had taken me on occasion to the old Polo Grounds to watch the Giants back in the 1940s, and I had seen the beginning of the All-America Conference, when the football Yankees–yes the Yankees once played football, played it at Yankee Stadium–and I remember a game when the Cleveland Browns, with Otto Graham and Marion Motley, came in, trailed 28–0 at the half (the Giants had the great Buddy Young, whom I later met, an early thrill for me), and then came back in the second half to gain a 28–28 tie. I was only XIV at the time, before the game went on television, but I already loved it. Then pro football was picked up by television, and it was another miracle– no matter where you lived, the game showed up too, and all you had to do was turn on a set.

I started watching NFL games on TV in 1956 with a bunch of pals in Nashville, where I was working as a newspaper reporter. We were all in our mid-20s, but little did we know that we were the NFL’s perfect target audience. We were just doing what came naturally and having a good Sunday afternoon in the process, blissfully unaware that we were a virtually priceless demographic and that an inordinate number of sponsors were zeroing in on us, hoping to sell us beer, cars, razors and a lifestyle. None of us owned a television set, so we would gather on Sunday afternoons at a place called Rotiers, a bar and grille (a rather elegant description of it, to tell the truth) near the Vanderbilt campus to watch the Giants and the Redskins and the Browns while eating steak sandwiches which we chased with enormous schooners of beer. It was a ritual we fell into naturally; no one ever had to call anyone on Sunday morning and ask if we were going to Rotiers for the games.

As America became a communications society, some things and institutions favored by television grew rapidly, as if in a greenhouse. And if there was one thing that grew in that TV greenhouse, it was football.

It was a black-and-white picture in those days, and the reception was not always perfect–sometimes instead of 22 players on the field it looked like 44, or more accurately, 22 men shadowed by their ghosts. But we, like so many others, got it instantly. Nobody needed to sell the NFL to us. We could see how good it was. When radio broadcasters did football they always had to focus on the men with the ball, runners and quarterbacks. But television showed us the brilliance of the defense–its power, speed and guile. And so, with the coming of television, not only did football gain parity with baseball, but its defensive players gained parity with its offensive stars. A great deal of football’s appeal in those days came from the sheer violence of the game, but it was a violence wrought from speed and strength, a fury most often meted out by defensive players. The proof that the game satisfied the most primal appetites of America–all of America– came in 1959, when the Giants’ All-Pro middle linebacker, Sam Huff, was on the cover of Time.

The professional game was better than the college game, and it lost far fewer stars each year to graduation. Great college players came and then went all too quickly, but pros might have careers of 10 or 12 years, which gave NFL teams a strong sense of identity, of personality. That sense of identity, of the familiar playing the familiar, is not to be underestimated. It gave fans an abiding connection to their favorite teams, their favorite players, their favorite rivalries, even if they represented cities 2,000 miles away. I do not often lament the passing of the good old days; I know that today’s players are bigger, stronger, and faster, and that today’s better teams would likely beat most of the great teams from earlier eras, but I do regret that the combination of free agency (not free agency itself, which is right and just, but its result, which is the overly fluid rosters it helped create) and over-expansion, which has weakened the identity of so many teams and thus of rivalries in so many games.

As America became a communications society, with TV as its connective link, some things and institutions favored by television grew rapidly, as if in a greenhouse. Think of it this way: Since the early wiring of the country in the mid-1950s, invention after invention has in some way added to the power of television and its importance in our homes and in our value systems–principally the right (along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) not be bored at home or burdened with something that you do not want to watch, and an enduring belief that no matter how mundane life appears to be, there is always one more channel to check out. The TV screens have gotten bigger and the fidelity of the picture dramatically better; the cameras at the games are more sophisticated; satellites circle the globe at all times beaming down upon us this vast selection of images. It’s as if, added together, all these inventions of the last 50 years have ended up changing a little box of flickering black-and-white images into a giant movie screen in our home, which is broadcasting all the time, and we as a society have become ever more addicted to it. Not all of the NFL owners, some of whom were hard, self-made men, embraced television in the early days. They thought that showing games on TV was like giving their product away, rewarding fans for not buying tickets. But the grumbling stopped forever in 1964, when Rozelle negotiated a contract with CBS that put $1 million in each owner’s pocket for the next two years. And if there was one thing that grew in that TV greenhouse, it was football.

The NFL benefited greatly from the Communications Era, when the country was wired, and did just as well in the one that followed, the Entertainment Era, which began when cable exploded and the number of channels suddenly jumped to 30 or 40 and soon to 300 or 400. That epoch started with the proliferation of broadcast satellites, the ensuing cable revolution and, in the world of sports, the launching of ESPN and other sports-driven and sports-obsessed channels, guaranteeing a kind of jock nirvana, a world in which the real fan would never again have to watch anything but sports. The all-sports all-the-time revolution made the games infinitely more important, made the players more important and ultimately and inevitably turned them into entertainers, as well as athletes. Namath (like his contemporary in boxing, Muhammad Ali) understood that his game was as much show-biz as it was athletic competition. He was signed by Sonny Werblin, an entertainment guy, a former agent, who watched the young Alabama star walk into the room for their first meeting–cocky, purposeful, with dark, brooding good looks–and saw immediately that his charisma made him the ideal man to lead Werblin’s Jets, an upstart team in an upstart league in New York City. Werblin made a point of paying his new quarterback so much money that his signing was itself a media event, and Namath was a star before he threw his first pass. Fortunately for him, he had the talent to match the hype. The same, of course, could be said about the NFL.

Pages from Super Bowl Opus featuring the New England Patriot's victories at Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX.

Pro football still has a powerful hold on me. I plan my Sundays around it in the fall, and if I’m on the road and don’t like the games on the networks, I go searching for a sports bar. I still watch the Super Bowl religiously, a word that is perhaps all too apt in this context.

Namath understood long before most of his contemporaries that he was part of a show as well as a game, playing to two separate crowds—the one in the stadium, and the much larger one at home.

The Game, of course, has grown exponentially. A few years ago a small group of friends and I were in one of the distant corners of the map, Patagonia, fishing the Rio Grande for oceangoing brown trout, some of which can reach 25 pounds. It was a great privilege to be on this great river at the perfect time of the year, and the fish were very big and very accommodating. But the Super Bowl was on and the Giants were in it, so one of my friends and I stopped fishing early that afternoon and drove for two and a half hours to watch the game in a bar. “Are you sure you’re fishing with the right kind of people?” the head of the fishing charter company later wired the leader of our little group.

There is a reason the game has thrived. The players are that good, and the NFL action, which builds week after week, is that brilliant, and the Super Bowl is the culmination of it all. I remain enthralled by the ferocity of the competition, and I am intrigued by the knowledge that the players of today who–whatever our memories try to tell us about the stars we grew up with, those who first drew us to the game and are forever in our own private Halls of Fame–are bigger and faster, and thus the game too, with its violent ballet, is greater than ever. I am dazzled that players that big can be that fast, that other players can take such terrible hits and keep playing. In a way it strikes me these games are about measuring in your imagination the physical limits of a human being. How big and fast and disciplined can they be? What is the real limit of human potential? How can a player, a Montana or a Brady or a Faulk, adjust in the tiniest fraction of a second to a changed situation in a given play? I am hardly alone in this; it is why all of us, I think, are drawn to it.

Back in those early days, some 40- to 50-million people watched the Super Bowl broadcast; now, if we are to believe those who claim they can chart it–that is, the people who check on who’s watching in Siberia and the Ivory Coast and Kuwait and Patagonia–the game is available to a billion viewers worldwide. In The Game’s infancy, 30 seconds of commercial time cost $42,000 and now it is $2.3 million, and many people who are otherwise not much engaged in the ebb and flow of the football season wouldn’t think of missing the broadcast, more for the competition for best commercial than for the game itself, which at times is not as entertaining. But in the end, it works; it is The Game, anticipated long in advance and enshrined on our calendars as one more de facto but very real national holiday, this one bequeathed to us by Pete Rozelle, prophet of the future, in a way that even he could not have imagined.

David Halberstam

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