Malcolm Moran, IUPUI Sports Journalism professor and former New York Times sports reporter, remembers Jan. 12, 1969 like it was just yesterday.
Moran was 15 years old at the time. After cheering on his beloved New York Jets at every home game that season at Shea Stadium in his lucky plain white woolen hat, he now had the chance to see his team play in their first-ever championship game.
But this stage was different. This wasn’t a title game between two American Football League (AFL) foes, it wasn’t another one-sided occasion for AFL fans to witness.
This was much bigger. This was a chance to represent an entire conference against what many believed was the more dominant National Football League (NFL). This was an opportunity to be televised nation-wide, to be witnessed by fans from both leagues. This was a “world” championship.
This was the Super Bowl at its very beginning.
Before the merger in 1966, the NFL and AFL held their own separate seasons and championship events, and six years after the AFL was established, it was clear that both leagues were operating under unsustainable models.
“The NFL and AFL were heading down a road where they were trying to destroy each other,” Moran said. “It was so bitter, and the competition for talent was so intense that the AFL started to overpay their players. The merger represented the emergence of a sense of financial sanity, and from that, the idea of a championship game between the two leagues emerged.”
The decision to combine the two leagues was met with ample interest. As a fan, Moran remembers looking forward to Super Bowl I, a game that offered the opportunity to put several years’ questions to rest.
“It was exciting, this idea of a championship game,” Moran said. “Prior to that, you would have the NFL having its separate game and the AFL with its separate game, and the debate would start: who would be better if you played the two head-to-head. Now, it wasn’t a debate. You could actually put it to test.”
After two years of one-sided competition, however, Moran remembers hearing murmurs of skepticism. The AFL had yet to win a Super Bowl, and heading into the 1969 championship game, Moran’s Jets were predicted to follow suit.
Had it not been for the Jets’ run-heavy approach and conservative play, Moran believes there could have been a chance the Super Bowl was scratched just three years after it had been established.
“There were already questions being raised about the format,” Moran said. “Would people stay interested in this game if the NFL kept winning one-sided games?”
“That third Super Bowl legitimized the format, though, and after the Chiefs beat the Vikings a year later, suddenly, the NFL and AFL were both 2-2 in the Super Bowl.”
But the Super Bowl was not always the spectacular, unofficial national holiday it is today. Now in its 50th game, it’s hard to imagine a time without it. Super Bowl I featured about 30,000 empty seats, a feat that is almost impossible to fathom occurring during today’s contest.
Moran described the early Super Bowls as “deadly dull” games, ones whose lack of appeal contributed to lower ratings and less attention.
“The game definitely got a lot better with time, and a lot of that has to do with the athleticism we see today,” Moran said. “Back then, you rarely saw a 50-yard field goal or a catch like Santonio Holmes’ in a Steelers’ Super Bowl win. Now, there are bigger plays, better games, and that leads to the event being sold to even the most casual of fans.”
As the Super Bowl gained steam, it became an event of great honor for a city to host. Indianapolis was lucky enough to get the bid for Super Bowl XLVI.
“To have a major event like that in your city is fantastic,” IUPUI Professor Steve Campbell said. “It’s people who would not have ordinarily come to Indianapolis who are coming here and staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants, and visiting our museums and taking advantage of all the things that Indianapolis has to offer. So that’s money into your community that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. The other reason is the sheer publicity. The Super Bowl is by far the biggest media event in the country. It’s the biggest sporting event in the country and to have all of that attention focused on your city and to have all of these people who are coming in to cover Super Bowl and attend the Super Bowl, having them come to your city is something that is priceless.”
Campbell served as the Deputy Mayor of Indianapolis when the bid process for the Super Bowl began. The bid committee, made up of Campbell and other community leaders, was in charge of putting together a proposal. They needed to sell Indianapolis and what it had to offer to the NFL owners to be voted on.
“The 32 owners are the ones who make the decision about where the Super Bowls are going to be held,” Campbell explained. “And every year they vote on the next couple Super Bowl locations. And then if you’re lucky, and after the presentation and the presentations from other cities, the owners vote and hopefully you come up on the right end of that vote.”
The Super Bowl’s success in Indianapolis changed the city’s reputation from “Naptown” to being a center of lively urban life. With the stadium, hotels, and restaurants all in the city’s center, Super Bowl XLVI provided a great fan experience and the potential to host another in the future.
“The Super Bowl that we had here was universally thought of as one of the best Super Bowls they’ve ever had,” Campbell said. “There have been 50 of them and again Indianapolis is one of the best Super Bowls out of those 50. So I definitely think we have a shot at getting another one in the future.”
As ratings continue to soar each year, entertainment industries are becoming more and more involved, allowing for the event to be a marriage of two very different worlds.
This combination of pop culture and sports has propelled the game to the height it is at today, and while celebration of the event is sure to ensue, Moran believes there could come a time when the Super Bowl’s format is questioned once again.
“Fifty years from now, you have to think: what’s going to be the modern form of football?” Moran said. “Are they going to place the football on the twenty-yard line without a kickoff? How will football be with all of the safety protocols being put into place? It’ll be something to watch later down the road.”
For now, the nation prepares to witness the game’s semicentennial. As the media continues to hype the game’s current state, it’s clear that Super Bowl 50 won’t just be about the present. It’s about making another mark in the game’s rich history.