Vince Lombardi stood in his makeshift office inside one of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s locker rooms. He had just coached the Green Bay Packers to a 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, a contest the media had dubbed the “Super Bowl.”
A huge throng of newspaper reporters with their notepads, TV and radio broadcasters with their lights, cameras and microphones crowded into the room to interview Lombardi, who was holding the game ball his players had presented to him after the victory. The questions started coming about how good the Chiefs – the champions of the upstart American Football League – compared with the other teams in the established NFL, the league the Packers were champions of.
“Kansas City is a good football team,” Lombardi said, “But their team doesn’t compare with the top National Football League teams. I think Dallas is a better football team.” There was silence in the office, except for the reporters’ scribbling. Lombardi added, “that’s what you’ve wanted me to say, now I’ve said it.”
Lombardi’s quote about the Chiefs would be featured on the front pages of sport sections across the country, in some instances in headlines. In a game that was hyped as the meeting between two teams and two leagues, Lombardi’s proclamation was taken as the final judgment.
The Super Bowl has become, by any measure in 2018, the biggest sporting event in the United States, a touchstone event in the country’s pop culture calendar. Super Bowl LII will be one of the most watched TV show in broadcast history, and thousands media credentials have been issued for the game.
One interesting part of the Super Bowl’s mythology is its growth into a dominant sporting event from humble, modest origins. The first game was officially called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game – the name Super Bowl didn’t officially get tagged to the game until the third one. It was the only Super Bowl game that did not sell out. Reporters looking back at the game years ago recalled a lack of hype. Will McDonough, the longtime football reporter for the Boston Globe, remembered that “They issued just 328 media credentials then. (In 1991) it’s over 2,000 and they turned away 1,000.” Jerry Greene of The Detroit News remembered more bluntly, “There was no hoopla.” The Super Bowl mythology is best encapsulated by Pat Summerall, the former New York Giants kicker and longtime football broadcaster: “There was none of the hype that we now associate with the game; in fact, nobody really wanted to play the game.”
The mythology that Super Bowl I is patently ludicrous.
One of my first research projects in graduate school examined the Super Bowl’s origin story. While the may not have been hyped in the same frenetic, across-the-board manner as in 2018, there was still plenty of coverage of the game.
An examination of eight newspapers — The New York Times; the Pittsburgh Press; The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.; the St. Petersburg Times in Florida; the Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.); the Oakland Tribune; the San Antonio Express-News and The Washington Post - showed extensive coverage of the game the day of and the day after. On the day of the game, the game was either the lead story or had a place of prominence on the sports cover of all eight newspapers. The day after the game, it was the top sports story in every paper, and even made its way onto the front page of several papers.
Newspapers from cities without pro football teams – in other words, ones without the kind of built-in interest as those cities with franchises – covered the game extensively. The full-page treatment the game received before hand in St. Petersburg and afterward in San Antonio shows this. From lead headlines to multiple stories, Super Bowl I was prominently covered in the newspapers of the time. Also, there were numerous columns criticizing the hype surrounding the game – though curiously, they were all critical of television’s overhyping of the game and never mentioned the glut of newspaper coverage.
The novelty of the game, and the merger of the two leagues, were no doubt the reasons behind this. This was not just any pro football game. It was the culmination of a seven-year battle between two leagues. The merger was the obvious storyline, and this was reflected in the newspaper coverage. The dominant theme was that the two teams represented the leagues themselves. In terms of the stories and coverage, this was not a showdown between the Packers and the Chiefs. This was a showdown between the NFL and the AFL, and the teams were mere representatives. The coverage made the game about the leagues, and their respective reputations. Leading up to the game, it was a matter of whether or not Green Bay could maintain the NFL’s aura of invincibility or that the Chiefs were carrying the hopes and dreams of the entire AFL. The coverage reflected little about the actual teams and more about the leagues themselves. Once Green Bay won in convincing fashion, the story was simple – the Packers had asserted the NFL’s dominance.
One interesting note was how prevalent the notion of money was in the coverage. The plethora of columns about the dueling telecasts revolved around the fact that this was a commercial, money-making enterprise for the networks. Also, it was noteworthy that virtually every story mentioned that the winners’ share was $15,000 a player – something rarely mentioned in modern coverage of the sporting events. Also interesting was the lack of coverage of Fred Williamson, the Kansas City cornerback whose pre-game boasts and trash talk received much attention in the weeks leading up to the game and is a key part of the Super Bowl I myth. In the three days studied, there were only two stories that referred to Williamson – and one of them was a wire-service brief about him leaving the game due to injury.
From its start, the Super Bowl was considered one of the most important sporting events in the United States. The coverage of the game from an NFL vs. AFL perspective set the tone not just for the next few Super Bowls but one that continues today, when the AFC is pitted against the NFC. And the amount of coverage the game received at the time debunks the creation myth that the first Super Bowl was not a big deal at the time.
Years later, Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope remembered: “Even though the game wasn’t sold out, it wasn’t played in privacy like some people like to say. I will say an awful lot of writers missed that first one and never missed another.”