The History of the Super Bowl

5 minute read

Few sporting events command as much attention and excitement as the Super Bowl. Today it stands as a de facto national holiday, a rare moment when tens of millions of Americans engage in the same activity. But it wasn’t always that way.

Before the rise of television, the Super Bowl was hardly a cultural phenomenon. Television democratized access to football, allowing the game to expand its reach. TIME called it the “Super Show” in 1977, comparing its cultural impact to that of electing a president or watching American astronauts walk on the moon: “Through its sophisticated and expensive techniques, television has forged a football game into the nation’s single largest shared experience.”

Read More: Your Complete Guide to the 2024 Super Bowl: Teams, Tickets, Taylor Swift, and More

Last year's game marked the third-most watched television broadcast in history, with an estimated 113 million people tuning in to watch the game, halftime show, and commercials.

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Read below for more fun facts about the history of the Super Bowl.

Who invented the Super Bowl?

The first Super Bowl took place in 1967 after the two competing football leagues—the NFL and AFL—negotiated a merger agreement in which they would formally join together and play a championship game at the end of each season. Team owners from both leagues negotiated the deal, hoping it would lead to more profitability and better competition.

Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs who played an active role in merger negotiations, jokingly suggested calling the new championship game the “Super Bowl,” drawing inspiration from his children’s “Super Ball” toy. “If possible I believe we should ‘coin a phrase’ for the Championship Game,” Hunt wrote to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1966. “I have kiddingly called it the 'Super Bowl,' which obviously can be improved upon." Hunt later said that the name was “far too corny” to ever be used on the big stage, with Rozelle proposing calling it the “Big One” or the “Pro Bowl.”

As they struggled to pick a name, the first matchup between the two leagues was dubbed the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” though sportswriters and fans found the name cumbersome. In 1969, the Super Bowl moniker became the official title and the two leagues merged in 1970.

Super Bowl I Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers' Elijah Pitts #22 runs with the ball during Super Bowl I against the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 15, 1967 in Los Angeles. The Packers defeated the Chiefs 35-10. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Which team won the first Super Bowl?

The NFL’s Green Bay Packers, led by Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, hoisted the first-ever championship trophy in 1967 after a 35-10 win over the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Packers quarterback Bart Starr was named Most Valuable Player, completing 16 of 23 passes for 250 yards and two scores during the game.

It was the only Super Bowl game in history that failed to sell out, with tickets around $10 to $15 that were thought to be overpriced, and a matchup that featured teams from smaller, midwestern cities. The entertainment also didn’t feature the same star power that later Super Bowls would command, but instead the University of Arizona marching band, trumpeter Al Hirt, and two men with jet packs zooming in the sky. 4,000 pigeons were also set loose, some of which left droppings on the crowd.

After the game, Lombardi told reporters that even the best team in the AFL “doesn’t compare with the top NFL teams.” Two years later, an AFL team won its first Super Bowl as the New York Jets, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, upset the NFL’s Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III.

Which team has won the most Super Bowls?

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are tied for most Super Bowl wins in NFL history with six each, followed by the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys with five wins apiece.

The Kansas City Chiefs, who are facing the 49ers on in Super Bowl LVIII, are three-time champions and have appeared in four of the last five Super Bowls. The 49ers’ last Super Bowl appearance was in 2020—also against the Chiefs.

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While the Chiefs and 49ers are accustomed to the big stage, there are 12 teams yet to win a Super Bowl and four teams that have never appeared in one, including the Detroit Lions who were narrowly eliminated in this year’s NFC championship game. The other teams that have never appeared in a Super Bowl are the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans.

history of the super bowl biggest wins
John Taylor #82 of the San Francisco 49ers scores a touchdown against the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XXIV on Jan. 28, 1990 in New Orleans.Focus on Sport—Getty Images

What is the biggest win in Super Bowl history? 

The biggest blowout in Super Bowl history took place in 1990, when the San Francisco 49ers dominated the Denver Broncos 55-10. Led by one of the greatest football duos of all time—quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice—the 49ers entered the game as 12-point favorites but quickly surpassed that modest spread. 

Montana compiled a passer rating of 147.3, the second-highest in Super Bowl history, and threw for a then-record five touchdown passes—three of which went to Rice. Broncos quarterback John Elway, a Hall of Famer, finished with a 19.4 passer rating, the third lowest in Super Bowl history.

Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrates after defeating the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.Bob Levey—Getty Images

What was the craziest Super Bowl comeback? 

Quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots pulled off the most miraculous Super Bowl comeback seven years ago in a 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons. Down 28-3 with 8:31 to go in the third quarter, the Patriots would go on to score 31 unanswered points on five consecutive drives, including two successful 2-point conversions to take the game to overtime. Sorry for the reminder, Falcons fans.

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