Thanks to the National Football League (NFL), football has become one of the most popular sports in the annals of American history. Although it has been the primary gridiron league for nearly a century, the NFL has by no means been the only show in town. For example, three separate versions of the American Football League (AFL) — one briefly in 1926, another in 1936-1937, and one yet again in 1940-1941 — mounted unsuccessful challenges to the NFL for gridiron supremacy. In the late 1940s, the NFL faced a new challenge for fans … and fan dollars … via the All-American Football Conference (AAFC). Established in 1946, the AAFC attracted many of the best players in the game including future Hall of Famers Otto Graham, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Frank “Bruiser” Kinard, and Joe Perry, among others. It also introduced a host of techniques and innovations that were adopted by the NFL such as players watching film of the opposition, employing coaching staffs on a year-round basis, the coach’s use of “messenger guards” for play calling, and helmet face masks. Despite laying claim to the establishment of such big name franchises as the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns, the AAFC ultimately failed in its attempt to crush the NFL, and ceased to exist by 1949.
It was not until yet another league claimed the AFL moniker, this time in 1960, that the NFL faced true head-to-head competition. Created by Lamar Hunt and several owners who had been refused NFL expansion franchises, the league began in relative obscurity. For its part, the NFL tried its best to undermine the fledgling league by reversing its position against expansion — a move that lured the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings to the NFL. The savvy and undeterred AFL owners survived through perseverance, with the original AFL consisting of the Eastern division New York Titans, Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, and Houston Oilers, and the Western division Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Dallas Texans. The league first gained attention by signing a number of NFL castoffs and the vast majority of the NFL’s first-round draft choices in 1960 (including Billy Cannon). A massive network television contract also bolstered the league and created a dedicated following.
Those televised games allowed the AFL to challenge the NFL not only for fans and viewership, but also lured NFL players to their ranks and ultimately wooed top prospects from colleges across the country. Early AFL heroes included future Hall of Famers Lance Alworth, Bobby Bell, Nick Buoniconti, Don Maynard, and Jim Otto. And when the New York Jets snagged rookie quarterback (and future superstar) Joe Namath from the University of Alabama with the #1 overall pick of the 1965 AFL Draft, it served to further legitimize the AFL while frustrating NFL executives. By 1965, the AFL was firmly established … and the NFL was suddenly afraid that they might suffer the same fate as leagues that once challenged their dominance. The bidding war for players spurred a drastic inflation in players' salaries, and owners in both leagues realized the situation might rain misfortune upon both sides. With this in mind, NFL owners opened negotiations with AFL executives to discuss a solution that would enable both leagues to remain financially successful.
By 1966, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had successfully brokered a merger of the AFL and the NFL into a single NFL entity. Most importantly, it paved the way for an annual world championship game to be played between the champions of each league … an AFL-NFL World Championship Game that came to be known as the Super Bowl. Although the first Super Bowl game, in January 1967, was played to a nearly half-empty stadium, audiences at home had their choice of two TV channels on which to catch the game. As NBC held the rights to nationally televise AFL games and CBS had the rights to broadcast NFL games, both networks were allowed to air the contest … and compete in promoting coverage of the event.
Within a few years, “Super Bowl Sunday” became a national institution as well as the most-watched television event of the year, with the two best teams taking to the field but only one walking away with the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy (named in honor of the legendary head coach). The event also has become a “national holiday” of sorts in the United States, and remains one of the most anticipated games of the year. Super Bowl XLV, played in 2011, became the most-watched American television program in history with an average audience of 111 million viewers, and a 30-second television advertisement that regularly costs a few million dollars. Those advertisements … and the very marketing of the game … are geared toward a wide-ranging audience of both men and women. For some viewers of the annual contest, the commercials are more exciting than the action on the field … a fact that over joys many marketing departments, as some companies wager their entire advertising budget on this one game. In the hope of wooing just a small percentage of Super Bowl viewers, some networks have also staged alternative contests featuring the likes of scantily clad women or frolicking pooches to coincide with the big game.
From collegiate fields to half-empty stadiums to one of the greatest sporting events of the year, football and the Super Bowl remain beloved parts of every gridiron fanatic’s life.