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Boomers Got Super-Sized

Super Bowl XLVI will be played next week, so that got Mister Boomer thinking that it was yet another in a long line of inventions that were a part of our young boomer experience. There were a lot of “supers” in our boomer youth: Superman, Super Car and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious among them, but in professional sports, there was only one Super Bowl.

The event had its origins in our formative years, with the first game played on January 15, 1967. Professional football had two competing leagues at the time: the American Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL). The AFL had been formed in 1960, and by the time of the first Super Bowl were directly competing for top college players and television contracts. The two leagues began merger talks in 1966, and agreed to play a championship game between league winners as a way of settling which team — and league — was the best. The name “Super Bowl” was first used by the owner of the AFL Kansas City Chiefs, and has been used ever since.

The first Super Bowl was played at Memorial Stadium in Los Angeles, California. It pitted the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs against the NFL’s (and legendary coach Vince Lombardi’s) Green Bay Packers. In the end, star quarterback Bart Starr prevailed as MVP as he led his Packers to a 35-10 victory. The Super Bowl trophy was named in Lombardi’s honor in 1971.

The game was simulcast by two television networks — NBC and CBS — with CBS gaining control over the cameras and supplying the feed to NBC. Each network used its own sportscasters, though. Ticket prices were $12, $10 and $6, which prompted an outcry over the “exorbitant” cost. Consequently, the game was not a sell-out, and the telecasts were blacked out in the Los Angeles area, as was the custom when football stadiums weren’t filled for a TV-scheduled game. Nonetheless, an estimated 60 million viewers tuned in.

The game was treated as just another championship game. There were no special commercials, and the halftime show featured trumpeter Al Hirt and marching bands from the University of Arizona, Grambling State University and the University of Michigan. Yet, just as the harbinger of change was blowing in the wind of the ’60s, the game wasn’t destined to be just an ordinary game. Players on the winning Packers team received a $15,000 bonus while the losing Chiefs players took home $7,500 each — the largest one-game pay of any sports event at the time.

Mister Boomer didn’t watch the first Super Bowl. In fact, football wasn’t really his thing; he was more of a baseball fan back then. By Super Bowl III in 1969, though, Mister B paid some attention when a brash young quarterback named Joe Namath of the AFL’s New York Jets “guaranteed” a win in the Super Bowl over the favored Baltimore Colts when he was heckled three days before the game. Namath was an outspoken, long-haired guy out of the University of Alabama who sported a stylish Fu Manchu mustache. The NFL was still stinging over his choice of an AFL team in the Draft of 1964, but still the prevailing notion was it would be years before an AFL team was considered of the caliber of an NFL team, let alone win a Super Bowl. Not since Babe Ruth pointed to a spot in the stands to which he would hit a home run had there been another sports proclamation with such bravado. Namath delivered on the promise and his team won the game, propelling him to celebrity status in the process.

A year later Broadway Joe, as he was called, was in the news again when he, along with some partners, opened a chain of bars called Bachelors III in Fort Lauderdale, Boston and New York. The NFL commissioner, citing reports that the bar was a hangout for members of organized crime, ordered Namath to divest himself from any interest in the bars. Namath, brash as ever, refused and instead chose to retire from football. The leagues (which were semi-merged and would finally complete their merger in 1970) panicked at the thought of losing a star player that helped bring in huge fan dollars and TV viewers, so a compromise was reached. Namath gave up his interest in the New York branch, but retained his partnership share in the remaining cities, plus any new locations that would open at a later date, and returned to football.

Namath was certainly not the first sports celebrity to cross over from sports to entertainment and other fields. He was, however, a phenomenon of the boomer era — even though officially he wasn’t a boomer himself, having been born in 1943. In the years that followed, he would appear as a sportscaster, appear in movies, and TV sitcoms and for one season hosted an eclectic talk show, along with Dick Schaap, called The Joe Namath Show.

By 1973, Namath was a superstar on and off the field, and the Super Bowl was growing in audience and influence as an event. It was in this year that Namath starred in a Noxema shaving cream commercial along with a then little-known Farah Fawcett that some say launched the beginning of the special Super Bowl commercial.

Mister Boomer has seen a few Super Bowls since then, but like most of us boomers marvels at the current ticket prices and cost of commercial time during the telecasts. From the humble beginnings of that game in 1967 sprouted an industry that is expected to reach $11 billion dollars this year, with each fan spending an average of $63.87 on merchandise, apparel and snacks. Somewhere between the parties and buying, a game will be played that had its origins in our early days.

What memories of Super Bowls past come to mind for you, boomers?

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