How the Super Bowl Works

Zach Ertz (No. 86) of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates with the Lombardi Trophy and talks with commentator Dan Patrick after the Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Focus on Sport/Getty Images


Each year, millions of football fans celebrate it, family and friends gather around the televisio­n to watch it and advertisers flock to it as if it were the holy grail of consumerism. Super Bowl Sunday is not just an ordinary day in America; it's a de facto national holiday. What's the big deal, anyway?

The Super Bowl is the popular name for the championship game of the National Football League (NFL). It's annually the most-watched single-day sporting event in the world, and in 2018 was broadcast to more than 170 countries and garnered an average of 104.3 million viewers on TV [source: Variety].

The game's intrigue is partially due to the finality of its outcome: Unlike other professional sports leagues that decide their champion in a series of games, the NFL decides its champion with only one. This winner-takes-all format adds to the drama of the game and sets the stage for an exciting finale to each NFL season.

Even if you are not a die-hard football fan, you may still have an interest in the parties, food and commercials that revolve around the game. In this article, we'll discuss the history of the Super Bowl, examine its popularity and learn some interesting facts about the game.

Super Bowl History: A Not-so-super Start

The first Super Bowl: Quarterback Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers drops back to pass. The Packers beat Kansas City 35 to 10.
The first Super Bowl: Quarterback Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers drops back to pass. The Packers beat Kansas City 35 to 10.
Photo courtesy NFL

The modern era of professional football began in 1922 when the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League (NFL). From 1922 to 1932, the team with the best regular season record was crowne­d champion. At the time, the league fluctuated between eight and 18 teams.

The NFL did not implement a post-season until 1933, when the league divided its teams into two five-team divisions and scheduled the first NFL Championship Game. In that first championship game, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 23-21 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The first Super Bowl wouldn't be played for 34 more years.


The seeds for the Super Bowl were planted in 1960, when a second professional football league formed to compete with the established NFL for players and fans. Although other leagues had come and gone, the eight-team American Football League (AFL) gained fan interest unlike any alternative league before it. What’s more, the AFL had owners with the money to sign players to lucrative contracts.

­The NFL-AFL rivalry became bitter in 1965, when the New York Giants broke an informal agreement between the two leagues not to pursue players already under contract. The Giants signed Pete Gogalak, a kicker still under contract with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. In retaliation, AFL owners targeted the NFL's top quarterbacks and signed seven players before the NFL finally relented under the pressure. When the NFL gave in, the AFL owners nullified the contracts of those seven quarterbacks.

During negotiations to settle the personnel matters between the leagues, a plan formed for the leagues to merge. The leagues agreed to formally merge in 1970, but would play an inter-league world championship game from 1966 to 1969 pitting the best team from each league against each other. This game would come to be known as the Super Bowl. For its first three years, the game was labeled the AFL-NFL World Championship Game; these days the games played under this clunky title are considered Super Bowls I through III.

­­Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt is credited with suggesting "Super Bowl" as a moniker for the championship game. Hunt was inspired as he watched his kids play with a Super Ball®, a rubber ball about the size of a tennis ball that was introdu­ced by Wham-O in 1965. Fittingly, Hunt's Chiefs would represent the AFL in the first Super Bowl, but were trounced by the Green Bay Packers 35-10 on January 15, 1967, at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Roman numerals were first used in 1971 to indicate the number of the Super Bowl being played. Thus, Super Bowl 5 became Super Bowl V.

In the next section, we'll explain how the NFL playoffs work and how a team gets to the Super Bowl.

Getting to the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XXXVI: David Patten of the New England Patriots catches a touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Super Bowl XXXVI: David Patten of the New England Patriots catches a touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Photo courtesy NFL

­ To win the Super Bowl, a team must first make it to the big game. That's no easy task. The first goal of any NFL team is to survive the grueling 16-game regular season schedule with a worthy record. Usually, 10 or more wins are required to make the playoffs, but 10 wins are no guarantee for a playoff berth.

The NFL's structure also has an effect on which teams reach the post season. The NFL consists of two 16-team conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), which are subdivided into four four-team divisions (North, South, East, and West). Each division winner earns an automatic trip to the playoffs. In addition, the two non-division winners with the best overall record get in as wild card teams. The playoff teams in each conference are then ranked, or seeded, according to their finish as follows: ­


  1. The division winner with the best record
  2. The division winner with the second-best record
  3. The division winner with the third-best record
  4. The division winner with the fourth-best record
  5. The wild card team with the best record
  6. The second wild card team

There are four rounds in the NFL playoffs. Both conferences use the same format. Here is a breakdown of each round:

  • Wild card round - The two top seeds automatically advance to the Divisional playoff round, which is their reward for their regular season success. The two wild card teams travel to the home field of the lower-seeded division winners. The sixth seeded team plays the third seeded team, and the fifth seed plays the fourth seed.
  • Divisional playoff round - The two top seeds have home field advantage in this round no matter who wins in the wild card round. The match ups depend on the results of the wild card round. If seed 6 wins, it plays seed 1 in the Divisional playoffs. However, if seeds 3 and 4 win their respective games, seed 1 plays seed 4.
  • Conference championship round - The two teams that survive the first two rounds meet to play for the conference championship. The team with highest seed plays on their home field. The conference champion advances to the Super Bowl.
  • Super Bowl - The world championship game, where the two conference champions play in a pre-determined site. Typically, the Super Bowl is played on the last Sunday in January or the first Sunday in February.


Winning the Super Bowl

­After winning ­the Super Bowl, the champions get to hoist one of the most famous trophies in professional sports, the Lombardi trophy. It is a sterling silver football in a tilted position atop a pyramid-like stand. The trophy is named for Vince Lombardi, the former Green Bay Packers coach who led the Packers to victory in Super Bowls I and II. Originally named the World Championship Game Trophy, the trophy was renamed the Lombardi trophy in 1971 following Lombardi's death. ­

Each trophy is handcrafted by Tiffany & Co. and takes 72 hours to make. The sterling silver trophy has an estimated value of more than $25,000, stands 22 inches (56 centimeters) tall, and weighs 7 pounds (3 kilograms). The front of the trophy is etched with the words "Vince Lombardi" and "Super Bowl," and the Roman numerals for the current Super Bowl. The NFL logo is also etched on the trophy.


­Players, coaches, and many others in the team's organization also receive a ring to commemorate the victory. These rings are usually ostentatious in design and size.

Though the rings are usually made of diamonds and gold, there have been some variations in recent years. The rings worn by the 2018 winners, the Philadelphia Eagles, featured 10-karat white gold, 219 diamonds and 17 green sapphires. Each set of Super Bowl rings costs about $5 million and the NFL picks up the cost [source: Barrabi].

Super Bowl Tickets

Considering the widespread interest in the Super Bowl today, it's hard to believe that the first Super Bowl didn't even sell out its venue. Fans were only mildly curious about the game between the NFL and AFL champions. It was not even shown in the Los Angeles area due to the blackout rule that prevents a non-sellout game from being televised in the area in which the game is played.

­­­­Tickets to that original Super Bowl were $6 to $12. Today, Super Bowl tickets are perhaps the most sought-after tickets in sports. The average Super Bowl ticket sells for thousands of dollars, with tickets often resold, or scalped, for many times more than their face value. Tickets are divvied up between the conference champions, the host team, the remaining 29 teams, and the NFL. The NFL distributes tickets to the public through a random drawing for the right to buy.


The lucky few who actually attend the Super Bowl are just a small fraction of the game's total audience. Those who can't attend the game watch it on television. In 2015, a record 114.4 million people watched the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks 28 to 24, making the game the most watched TV broadcast in U.S. history [source: Patten]. The global numbers are more debatable, but the NFL claims it has a potential worldwide audience of nearly 1 billion viewers.

Where there are more than 100 million pairs of eyes watching, there are advertisers wanting to put their product in front of those eyes. In the next section, we'll look back at some of the memorable advertising campaigns that have premiered during the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Commercials

­Super Bowl Sunday isn't all about the football game for some viewers. A large segment of the audience tunes in to the game just to see the commercials. Often, the commercials are as hot a topic of water-cooler conversations the next day as the game itself.

If you create a large enough public spectacle, advertisers will line up to put their name (and their money down) on it. There's no bigger spectacle in the world than the Super Bowl. Advertising time during the Super Bowl is the most expensive in television. NBC charged an average of $3 million for a 30-second ad in the 2009 Super Bowl; by 2017, Fox was charging $5 million–$5.5 million for Super Bowl ad spots. Ads in 1967 cost a mere $42,000, according to Advertising Age magazine [source: BLS]. Ad prices reached $1 million in 1995 and went over $2 million for the first time in 2000. Just nine years later, they hit the $3 million mark.


With so much interest in the commercials, advertisers have pressure to live up to the hype of years past. Here are some of the most famous commercials debuted during Super Bowls:

  • 1984: 1984 (Apple). In perhaps what is now the most famous Super Bowl commercial ever, Apple launched the Macintosh computer with its Orwellian "Big Brother" ad in which a woman throws a hammer at a jumbo screen displaying Big Brother. Apple never ran the ad on television again.
  • 1987: Apartment 10G (Pepsi). This ad starred Michael J. Fox, who goes to great efforts to get an attractive new neighbor a Diet Pepsi, including jumping out his window and running through oncoming traffic to get to a vending machine. The neighbor delivers the punch line when she introduces her equally attractive roommate -- who immediately asks for another Diet Pepsi.
  • 1989: Bud Bowl I (Budweiser). Bud Light and Budweiser bottles face off on the gridiron to decide the king of beers.
  • 1992: Hare Jordan (Nike). This one starred Bugs Bunny as Hare Jordan and Michael Jordan in a one-on-one basketball game. The ad inspired the movie "Space Jam."
  • 1993: Showdown between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird (McDonalds). The two basketball legends play a game of "top this," shooting the basketball off of various objects and into the basket.
  • 1995: Budweiser Frogs. It was hard to get the "Bud - Weis - Er" frog chant out of your head after this campaign was launched.
  • 1999: When I grow up ( In this tongue-in-cheek ad, kids took turns saying what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some of the kids wanted to…"file all day," "claw my way up to middle management," "be replaced on a whim," and "have a brown nose."
  • 2000: Cat herders (Electronic Data Systems). This ad depicted cowboys riding across the range herding cats as if they were cattle.
  • 2002: Six degrees of Kevin Bacon (Visa Check Card). This poked fun at the popular party game in which people try to link an actor to Kevin Bacon through interconnected movies. In the commercial, Bacon writes a check and has to prove his identity by finding a way to link himself to someone the store clerk knows.
  • 2003: Terry Tate: Office Linebacker (Reebok). A football linebacker runs through the office of a fictional company tackling rule-breakers.
  • 2006: FedEx Caveman (FedEx). In this wonderfully pointless commercial, a luckless caveman tells his boss he's failed to send a stick via pterodactyl courier. Despite the caveman's protests that he couldn't use FedEx, as his boss suggests, because the company doesn't exist yet, he's fired. Depressed, he leaves the office cave, kicks a small dinosaur -- and is promptly squished under the foot of a much larger dinosaur.
  • 2008: Baby (E-Trade). A precocious infant talks trading and investing.
  • 2011: The Force (Volkswagen). A mini-Darth Vader struggles to use the force.
  • 2014: Up for Whatever (Budweiser). It involves Don Cheadle and a llama in an elevator. What more needs to be said?

­The Super Bowl is an event like no other sporting event in the world. No matter if it's the commercials or the game you find interesting, the Super Bowl is sure to get your attention in some way. Of course, for some people, it's all about the food.­

Super Bowl Parties: Don't Forget the Dip

­T­he teams and fans aren't the only ones who eagerly look forward to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl Sunday is also a favorite day of restaurants, bars, and food retailers. A long television program, plus a gathering of friends of family equals lots of food being eaten. Only Thanksgiving surpasses Super Bowl Sunday for one-day food consumption in America, according to the American Institute of Food Distribution.

Americans double their average daily snack food consumption on Super Bowl Sunday. Let's take a look at what Americans are eating while they watch the big game:


  • 1.3 billion chicken wings
  • 11.2 million pounds of potato chips
  • 139 million pounds of avocados
  • 8.2 million pounds of tortilla chips
  • 2.8 million pounds of popcorn
  • 3 million pounds of nuts

[Source: Neporent]

­For more information on the Super Bowl, football and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Last editorial update on Jan 31, 2019 05:42:59 pm.

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More Great Links


  • Fairburn, Matthew. “Super Bowl 50: How much does Vince Lombardi Trophy weigh? How much is it worth?" Feb. 6, 2016. (Jan. 31, 2017)
  • Kissell, Rick. "Super Bowl 50 Ratings: CBS Draws Third Largest Audience on Record." Variety. Feb. 8, 2016. (Jan. 31, 2017)
  • Korn, Morgan. "Super Bowl 50: What Americans Will Be Eating and Spending." ABC News. Feb. 3, 2016. (Jan. 31, 2017)
  • Kuriloff, Aaron. “Super Bowl tickets resale prices fall from Steelers’ 2006 title.” Bloomberg. January 28, 2009.
  • Lilleston, Randy. “Super Bowl audience sets record.” USA Today. February 4, 2008.
  • Neporent, Liz. "Super Bowl Parties Hike Calorie Counts." ABC News. Jan. 27, 2015. (Jan. 31, 2017)
  • NFL. "Super Bowl Records." (Jan. 31, 2017)
  • Patten, Dominic. "Touchdown! NBC’s Super Bowl Scores Record-Smashing Viewership – Update." Deadline. Feb. 2, 2015. (Jan. 31, 2017)
  • Price, Greg. "Super Bowl 2016: How Many Countries Will Watch Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos?" International Business Times. Feb. 5, 2016. (Jan. 31, 2017)
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  • Stevenson, Seth. “Eaxmining the NFL championship as advertising’s biggest stage.” Slate. January 31, 2008.
  • SeatGeek. "Super Bowl 51." (Jan. 31, 2017)