For as long as most football fans can remember, the Super Bowl has been the preeminent sporting event in American culture. The game reaches the largest television audience for a North American sport both domestically and internationally, and everything surrounding the game is similarly large. The media day preceding the game has become its own major event, with thousands of people credentialed from the top reporters at the World Wide Leader to this man dressed in a barrel and cowboy hat. The commercials shown during the game have evolved into a cottage industry of sorts, with the best and worst offerings debated for days after the game itself.
Yet while so many ancillary components garner attention, the game itself remains king. Not only does it pit the champion of each conference in a winner-takes-all showdown, but the game is also rife with drama and questions of legacy. When Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos were demolished by the Seattle Seahawks in last year's Super Bowl, his reputation as a great regular season quarterback who fails in the playoffs was set in stone. Meanwhile, the Seahawks themselves opened the door to perhaps become the league's next great team. All these things and more pivot on the outcome of the Super Bowl.
But the NFL didn't always conclude each season with the Super Bowl. The game and its mystique developed as the result of an unlikely merger and more unlikely upset.
What was professional football like before the 1970 merger?
The NFL existed in one form or another since 1920. In its earliest days, the league consisted of 14 teams located mostly in Ohio and Illinois. Schedules were non-standardized for the first decade, as teams continued to barnstorm in addition to their league commitments. Franchises were also not required to play half their schedule on the road as they do today. Influential teams such as the Chicago Staleys (later rechristened the Bears) and the now-defunct Buffalo All- spent entire seasons without playing an away game.
During that time, there was no playoff system to determine a champion -- the team with the best record at the conclusion of the season was declared the winner. That didn't always yield the ideal result, however. In 1921, the All-Americans finished with the best record in the league after defeating the Akron Pros on Dec. 3. Staleys owner George Halas challenged the All-Americans to a rematch for the following day, an offer Buffalo accepted on the condition that it not be counted in the standings. When a rested Chicago team defeated the exhausted All-Americans, Halas campaigned to have his team declared league champion. He eventually convinced enough owners that his team's win over a team that played the previous day was worthy of championship status.
Tired of controversial champions, the league shifted to a title game beginning with the 1933 season. Franchises were divided into two conferences with the winner of each meeting after the regular season to determine a victor. However, unlike the Super Bowl, the game was not played at a neutral site. Instead, the team with the better record hosted, often skewing the results. This remained the custom until the NFL began battling the rival AFL in the late 1960s.
Why did the NFL and AFL merge?
For decades, the NFL remained mostly uncontested as America's premier professional football league. In most cases, a rival league would fold under financial strife and the NFL would absorb its best teams (the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers all entered the NFL this way).
The first entity to offer any threat was the AFL, a league comprised of wealthy businessmen such as Lamar Hunt who had been shunned from the NFL ownership. Under their guidance, the AFL not only placed teams in markets ignored by the bigger league, but also competed financially for the top football players coming out of the collegiate ranks. The latter proved particularly effective when stars like Billy Cannon, Lance Alworth and Joe Namath passed on the NFL for the larger contracts offered by Hunt and his colleagues.
Unwilling to go head-to-head with the AFL for players, the NFL initiated merger talks. During the 1966 offseason, the two sides stuck a deal that would combine the leagues under one banner. One of the conditions of the merger was the creation of a "common draft," a selection process all teams would commit to that would end the bidding war for college players.
However, the biggest condition of the agreement was the establishment of an AFL-NFL championship game. The game would pit each league's champion against one another at a neutral site determined before the season. This game would later be renamed the Super Bowl.
Why is it called the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl name has surprisingly humble origins. In a 1966 letter to then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, he wrote in reference to the AFL-NFL championship game, "I have kiddingly called it the 'Super Bowl,' which obviously can be improved upon." According to Hunt, the name was inspired by Super Ball, the popular rubber children's toy.
But the name was not recognized at first. The first two games -- both blowouts by the NFL's Green Bay Packers -- were called the "AFL-NFL Championship Game," while the third was labeled the "World Championship Game." That contest pitted the heavily favored Colts against the New York Jets. Before the game, quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed that the Jets would win, adding to the mystique of the game. When New York did emerge victorious, the AFL gained legitimacy in the eyes of the general public for the first time. Perhaps as a result of the two leagues now viewed more equally, the game was rechristened the Super Bowl. At the suggestion of Hunt, the contests were numbered with roman numerals, a tradition that continues today.