A football field under the lights

The Super Bowl is a cultural moment—but why?

On Sunday, a substantial portion of the United States population and countless viewers around the world will be fixated on one event: the Super Bowl. But, how has a single sporting event become one of the most (if not the most) prominent secular features on the annual calendar?

To find out, The Daily spoke with John Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller Joint Professor in History at the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. In addition to teaching a sport history course, Grabowski conducts research that spans the fields of public and academic history, and he specializes in many areas, including public history.

“[How the Super Bowl grew to become a cultural moment] is an important question because, for many years, professional football was not a major attraction—it was certainly eclipsed in popularity by baseball and also by collegiate football,” Grabowski explained. “Indeed, the ‘biggest’ football game in Cleveland during the 1930s and 1940s was the annual Case vs. Western Reserve game! So, how did we get to LVII?”

Read on to learn what factors Grabowski believes contributed to the rise of the Super Bowl.

1. Post-World War II prosperity (for some, not all) and consumerism.

Televisions, which went on the market just before the war and became, perhaps, the most popular consumer choice after the war, were key to building the popularity of the pro game. In 1951, the National Football League (NFL) negotiated the first league-wide television contract—and that “paid off” on Dec. 28, 1958, when an incredibly exciting championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts engaged and entranced a national TV audience. Many sports historians cite this as the “moment” when the pro game really emerged as great sport and entertainment.

2. Pete Rozelle’s role in the sport.

Pete Rozelle, who became commissioner of the NFL in 1960, saw the importance of television and began to negotiate astoundingly lucrative league-wide TV contracts in 1964. Rozelle was also central to the merger of the American Football League (the first truly successful competing football league in the U.S.) into the NFL in 1966.

Both leagues became “conferences” of the NFL in 1970. Their first annual championship game, which became the Super Bowl, was held in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967—only 35,000 fans paid for a $12 ticket in a venue that could seat 100,000! Team owners wanted to name this ultimate game the “World Championship,” but Rozelle dubbed it the “Super Bowl” in 1971, and he boldly and retroactively renumbered and renamed the 1967 game as Super Bowl I. Yet, it would take some years after 1971 for the game to achieve the status it now holds.

3. The use of Roman numerals.

The use of the Roman numerals hints at another factor that has built the popularity of the game and of football in general. [Professional football] is not quite at the level of the events held in the Coliseum in Rome, but it has an atmosphere of controlled violence, one in which plays are scripted and executed with almost military precision, where long passes are referred to as “bombs,” and tackles become “hits.“

Injury and death actually clouded the future of the collegiate game in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Beginning in the early 1960s, the NFL saw the attraction of spectacular plays and hard-hitting action and focused on them through “NFL Films.” One can also contend that half-time marching bands at collegiate games and military flyovers at both collegiate and professional games add to this milieu.  

4. The fact that it’s not just a sporting event.

None of the above factors can fully explain the popularity the Super Bowl has achieved. Certainly, the growth of visual media, beyond television, has raised awareness of it, and technical improvements in visual coverage have given both those in the stadium and at home a more intimate and detailed view of the game. The half-time show now centers on leading figures from the entertainment world and thus helps build viewership. 

Most interestingly, the commercials have, ironically, become something to look forward to and, in themselves, represent another level of “competition” in the broadcast. Gambling, once supposedly totally shunned in sport, also adds to the interest in the game. And, for many who live in the cold north, the game is an escape from the winter weather. Overall, one could conclude that, for better or worse, the Super Bowl has evolved beyond being a simple sporting event—it is, perhaps, our national winter carnival.

This article was originally published Feb. 7, 2023.