In an age of tribalism, when individuals tend to retreat to their own comfortable corners, the Super Bowl stands as a holdout. It is a throwback to the days when a large segment of the country’s population was affixed to one event at the same time. That it has reached a pinnacle of attention is a culmination of a process that tracks its growth from rather rudimentary origins.
During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the National Football League teams were largely playing in stadiums where they were second-class tenants to the major league baseball teams. Baseball was still America’s pastime and tackles were often made on infield dirt base paths. Until 1958, the Eagles used Connie Mack Stadium where the Phillies were the landlord. In New York, the Giants played in Yankee Stadium. The Steelers used the Pittsburgh Pirates Forbes Field. That was the norm.
Along came the upstart American Football League starting in 1960, and the competition would result in an eventual merger between the two leagues. In that process pro football, as one league with National and American conferences, expanded from twelve markets to 24 in time for the 1970 season. By this time, Philadelphia-based NFL Films had been bringing a new dimension to the TV screen.
Founded by Philadelphian Ed Sabol, the violent sport was turned into a form of ballet. Slow-motion footage was met with the dulcet voice of Philadelphia TV News icon John Facenda. Chilling instrumental music formed the bed for this mix, and suddenly the beauty of the sport was being enjoyed by countless millions.
In 1966, while a teenage vendor at Franklin Field, I was fascinated by the 60,671 bodies who would inhabit the iconic horseshoe shaped stands for the six home games. By the time the American Football Conference’s New York Jets beat the favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl III, led by the effervescent Joe Namath, it was clear that pro football had become America’s new pastime. As the advent of fantasy football leagues took hold, the popularity swelled even more.
At one time, there were countless national TV shows that reached vast audiences. They drew tens of millions of viewers into a communal experience. The many decades ago final episodes of The Fugitive and MASH come to mind as programs that promised extensive discussions between colleagues at the next mornings’ coffee breaks. With the proliferation of countless choices in both traditional media, pay cable and streaming channels and social media, audiences enjoying the same experience at the same moment on a super-large scale are quite rare.
In his 1956 book, Broadcasting In America, Sydney Head described a mass audience as “an extremely heterogeneous audience whose members need have nothing in common beyond receiving identical messages at about the same time.” Such lightening rarely strikes these days.
It is a tribute to the NFL, that 93 of the most-watched TV events in 2023 were games involving its teams. Last year’s Super Bowl drew 115.1-million sets of eyes, according to Nielsen ratings. It’s been a steady climb that has resulted in a bridging of the many social divisions that normally separate so many of us. And it is something that ought to be cherished and duplicated in other yet anticipated arenas.
Jeff Hurvitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and Philadelphia native.