How the Super Bowl Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & John Donovan  | 

Super Bowl
The Super Bowl is the championship game of the National Football League (NFL), annually the most-watched single-day sporting event in the world. Getty Images/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?

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The Super Bowl is the championship game of the National Football League (NFL), annually the most-watched single-day sporting event in the world. In 2020, nearly 99.9 million viewers watched Super Bowl LIV when the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers — and that's just U.S. viewership. The most watched Super Bowl in history was Super Bowl XLIX in which 114.4 million viewers saw the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks.

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; the Super Bowl.

Even if you're 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

Super Bowl
The first Super Bowl pit the Kansas City Chiefs against the Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The modern era of professional football began in 1922 when the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League. 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 didn't implement a postseason until 1933, when the league divided its teams into two five-team divisions and scheduled the first NFL Championship Game. In that first title game, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 23-21 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. But the first Super Bowl, as we know it today, wouldn't be played for 34 more years.

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The seeds for the Super Bowl were planted in 1960, when a second professional football league formed to compete with the established NFL. Although other leagues had come and gone, the eight-team American Football League (AFL) gained fan interest unlike any 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 Gogolak, a kicker still under contract with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. In retaliation, AFL owners targeted the NFL's top quarterbacks, signing seven of them before the NFL finally relented. 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. They did so in 1970, but before they did, they agreed to play an inter-league championship game, from 1967 to 1969 (covering the 1966, '67 and '68 seasons), pitting the best teams from each league against each other. For its first three years, the game officially was labeled the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Those games now are considered Super Bowls I through III.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt is credited with suggesting the "Super Bowl" as a moniker. Hunt was inspired as he watched his kids play with a Super Ball, a rubber ball that was introduced by Wham-O in 1965. Fittingly, Hunt's Chiefs represented the AFL in the first Super Bowl, though the Chiefs were trounced by the Green Bay Packers 35-10 on Jan. 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Forgotten Champions

Memories are short in the sports world. The creation of the Super Bowl in 1967 created a second-class status for those champions crowned in the years prior to the Super Bowl era. Here is a list of teams that won the most NFL and AFL championships prior to 1967:

NFL (1922-1965)

  • Green Bay Packers: 9 championships
  • Chicago Bears: 6 championships
  • Cleveland Browns: 4 championships
  • Detroit Lions: 4 championships

AFL (1960-1966)

  • Buffalo Bills: 2 championships
  • Houston Oilers: 2 championships

Of the teams listed, only the Packers and Bears have won a Super Bowl.

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
Raheem Mostert (No. 31) of the San Francisco 49ers rushes for an 11-yard touchdown during the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 19, 2020. The 49ers ultimately won, sending them to the Super Bowl. Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

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 regular season schedule — it's now 16 games — with a worthy record. Usually, 10 or more wins are required to make the playoffs, but that's no guarantee.

In 2021, the NFL has expanded its playoff field to 14 teams, up from 12. Four division winners from the NFL's two 16-team conferences — the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) — earn an automatic trip to the playoffs. In addition, the three non-division winners with the best overall record get in as wild card teams. The playoff teams are then ranked, or seeded, according to their finish in the conference, as follows:

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  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 wild card team with the second-best record
  7. The wild card team with the third-best record

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

  • Wild card round: The top seed in each conference automatically advances to the Divisional playoff round, their reward for their regular-season success. The three wild card teams in each conference travel to the home field of the three lower-seeded division winners. The No. 2 seed hosts the No. 7 seed, the No. 3 seed hosts the No. 6 seed, and the No. 4 seed hosts the No. 5 seed. Winners advance to the next round.
  • Divisional playoff round: Four teams in each conference (eight teams, total) are left after the wild card games. The top playoff seeds remaining in each conference have home-field advantage in this round and are matched up against the lowest seeds remaining.
  • Conference championship round: The two teams in each conference (four total) that survive the first two rounds meet to play for the conference championship. The team with the highest seed plays on their home field. The two conference champions advance to the Super Bowl.
  • Super Bowl: The game is played at a pre-determined site, typically on the last Sunday in January or the first Sunday in February. The 2021 Super Bowl (Super Bowl LV) will be Sunday, Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Winning the Super Bowl

Super Bowl
Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates the team's Super Bowl LIV win on Feb. 2, 2020 with the famed Lombardi Trophy. Rob Carr/Getty Images

After winning the Super Bowl, the champions 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, it 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 engraved onto the trophy.

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Players, coaches and many others in the team's organization also receive rings 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. The NFL picks up the cost [source: Barrabi].

Super Bowl Tickets

Super Bowl
Super Bowl tickets are some of the toughest tickets to get your hands on. Icon Sportswire/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Considering the widespread interest in the Super Bowl, it's hard to believe that the first Super Bowl didn't even sell out the cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It wasn't even shown on TV 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, especially so in 2021 when attendance at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium will be severely restricted because of COVID-19 concerns. The average Super Bowl ticket sells for thousands of dollars, with tickets often resold, or scalped, for many times more than their face value.

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Tickets normally are divvied up between the conference champions, the host team, the remaining teams, and the NFL. Because of the ongoing pandemic, 2021 promises to be drastically different.

The lucky few who actually attend the Super Bowl make up 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 28-24, making the game the most watched TV broadcast in U.S. history [source: Patten]. The global numbers are not quite as clear, but the NFL claims it has a potential worldwide audience of nearly 1 billion viewers.

With more than 100 million pairs of eyes watching, advertisers clamor to put their product s 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
The Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales are often part of the brewing company's Super Bowl commercials. trdesignstudio.com/Anheuser-Busch

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.

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 to $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. In 2020, a 30-second spot cost about $5.6 million.

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With so much interest in the commercials, advertisers have to live up to the hype. Here are some of the most memorable commercials to air during a Super Bowl:

  • 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 (Monster.com). 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.
  • 2003: Terry Tate: Office Linebacker (Reebok). A football linebacker runs through the office of a fictional company tackling rule-breakers.
  • 2009: Crash the Super Bowl (Doritos). This crowd-sourced ad featured an office worker fulfilling a prediction that he would receive free Doritos by smashing open a vending machine with a crystal ball — he does by throwing the crystal ball through the vending machine.
  • 2011: The Force (Volkswagen). A mini-Darth Vader struggles to use the force.
  • 2015: Like a Girl (Always). This commercial made history as the first-ever feminine care ad to run during the Super Bowl. But it was the message of girl power that made it so memorable.
  • 2018: The Elevator (Hyundai). Jason Bateman takes car shoppers on a magical elevator ride that, well, compares car shopping to the worst of the worst — think root canals and jury duty.
  • 2019: Wind Never Felt Better (Anheuser-Busch). It's hard to pick the best of the Budweiser Clydesdales ads, but after skipping the 2018 Super Bowl, the majestic horses (and dogs!) returned in 2019 to promote the brewery's use of wind power.
  • 2020: Before Alexa (Amazon). Ellen Degeneres and her wife Portia de Rossi ponder what the world was like before Alexa.

The Super Bowl is an event like no other 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

Super Bowl
Super Bowl parties and eating are as much a part of the Sunday ritual as the game itself. Philip Pacheco/Getty Images

The teams and fans aren't the only ones who eagerly look forward to the game. Super Bowl Sunday is for hosting parties, and it's 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.

But the amount of food Americans eat during the game is staggering. Research released just before the 2020 Super Bowl suggested that the average football fan would eat about 10,821 calories and 180 grams of saturated fat during the big game. That's four and half times the recommended daily calorie intake. The research came from LetsGetChecked, a direct-to-consumer health testing and insights company, which polled 1,000 Americans who planned to watch the 2020 game.

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They also asked Americans what they planned to eat:

  • 2.7 portions of hot wings
  • 3.2 slices of pizza
  • 2.1 portions of fries
  • 3.4 bags of chips
  • 1.9 portions of chilli
  • 2.4 burgers
  • 1.7 sliders
  • 2 hot dogs
  • 2.7 portions of nachos
  • 3 pieces of fried chicken
  • 1.8 ribs
  • 1.7 sausages
  • 1.6 slices of cake
  • 1.8 brownies
  • 1.8 bowls of ice cream
  • 2.3 portions of salad
  • 2.1 subs
  • 1.7 bags of sweets
  • 1.9 bars of chocolate

That's a ton of food for one day, which is why it should be no surprise that most football fans said they planned to overindulge on game day.

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

Originally Published: Jan 24, 2004

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Sources

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