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The Super Bowl is an enormously popular sporting event that takes place each year to determine the National Football League (NFL) champion. Millions of fans gather around televisions on a Sunday in January or February to celebrate this de facto national holiday. Broadcast in more than 170 countries, the Super Bowl is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world, with elaborate halftime shows and new commercials adding to the appeal. 

History of the Super Bowl

Though the NFL officially formed in 1920, the Super Bowl wasn't played until more than 40 years later.

In 1960, a group of businessmen who wanted to own football franchises—but were denied by the NFL—launched an alternative league, known as the American Football League (AFL).

For several years, the NFL and AFL were rivals, competing for fans, players and support. Then, in 1966, owners negotiated an agreement to merge the leagues by 1970.

The first Super Bowl, which featured the AFL (Kansas City Chiefs) and NFL champion (Green Bay Packers), was played January 15, 1967. The game was originally called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.” Later, Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt proposed using the term “Super Bowl” to refer to the championship game.

After the leagues merged, the NFL split into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). The champions of each play in the Super Bowl.

The First Super Bowl

In Super Bowl I, the NFL champion Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Although ticket prices averaged $12, the game was not a sellout—the only non-sellout in the game's history. The game drew 61,000 fans and was televised by CBS and NBC.

The next year, the Packers decisively won Super Bowl II against the Oakland Raiders, 33-14. Many questioned whether the AFL champion could beat the NFL's best.

Joe Namath's Guarantee in Super Bowl III

In Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969, the AFL champion New York Jets, a 17.5-point underdog, beat the NFL champion Baltimore Colts, 16-7—a result considered one of the sport's greatest upsets. It was the first Super Bowl win for the upstart American Football League.

The Jets were led by brash quarterback Joe Namath, who had guaranteed a New York win. The Colts, coached by Don Shula, finished the regular season 13-1 and beat the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns in the NFL playoffs. Against the Jets, though, Baltimore didn't score until the fourth quarter.

As he left the field that afternoon at the Orange Bowl in Miami, "Broadway Joe" Namath pointed his index finger in the air—one of the more famous scenes in sports history. 

The Super Bowl grew in popularity after the AFL-NFL merger.

READ MORE: In epic Super Bowl upset, Jets make good on Namath guarantee

Super Bowl: 1970s-Present

During the 1970s, three teams—the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys—dominated the NFL, winning a combined eight Super Bowls in 10 years.

Franchises from the NFC won 16 of the 20 Super Bowls played in the 1980s and 1990s. The San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins (now Washington Football Team) and New York Giants stood out during these years.

The Cowboys resurged in the 1990s, and the Buffalo Bills became a powerhouse franchise, although they never won a Super Bowl, losing four title games in a row from 1991-1994.

The AFC bounced back after the Bills' run of losses. From 1995-2016, the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts represented the conference in 20 of the 22 AFC Super Bowl appearances.

The Patriots established themselves as a dynasty beginning in the 2001 season, with quarterback Tom Brady leading them to nine Super Bowl appearances and six wins.

Memorable Super Bowl Matchups

Super Bowl III (New York Jets 16 | Baltimore Colts 7, Jan. 12, 1969): The Jets' win was the first in the Super Bowl for the AFL, widely viewed at the time as inferior to the NFL.

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Super Bowl XIII (Pittsburgh Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31, Jan. 21, 1979): Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns. 

Super Bowl XXIII (San Francisco 49ers 20, Cincinnati Bengals 16, Jan. 22, 1989): Joe Montana threw the winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left, capping an 11-play, 92-yard drive. 

Super Bowl XXV (New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19, Jan. 27, 1991): A missed field goal by the Bills gave the Giants their second Super Bowl win in five years.

Super Bowl XXXIV (St. Louis Rams 23, Tennesee Titans 16, Jan. 30, 2000): The Rams stopped the Titans at the 1-yard line in the waning seconds.

Super Bowl XXXVI (New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17, Feb. 3, 2002): A field goal as time expired secured the victory for the Patriots.

Super Bowl XLII (New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14, Feb. 3, 2008): The The Giants stunned the Patriots, ruining what would have been the second perfect season of the Super Bowl era. David Tyree's "helmet catch" on New York's last drive led to Eli Manning hitting Plaxico Burress for the winning score. New England finished the season 18-1. 

Super Bowl XLIX (New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24, Feb. 1, 2015): Malcolm Butler's interception at the 1-yard line with 28 seconds left sealed the win for the Patriots. 

Super Bowl LI (New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28, Feb. 5, 2017): In this epic game, the Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit to win in the Super Bowl's first overtime game.

Super Bowl MVPs 

Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr won the first two MVP awards. Quarterbacks have won the award more than any other position, by far. Former New England quarterback Tom Brady, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2020, has won five Super Bowl MVP awards—four with the Patriots and one with the Buccaneers. 

Super Bowl Halftime Show

The early Super Bowls featured marching bands. Then popular musicians took center stage, and the shows evolved into much-anticipated spectacles. Some viewers consider the halftime show, now a 30-plus-minute act, a bigger event than the game.

READ MORE: Weird and Wondrous: Evolution of Super Bowl Halftime Show

Internationally famous Michael Jackson, U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Prince, Beyoncé, Coldplay and others have performed during the halftime show.

The halftime show is famous for musical surprises … and mishaps. On February 3, 2013 at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, power went out during Beyoncé’s halftime show. At Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston on February 1, 2004, audiences went into an uproar over the “nipplegate” controversy during the performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.

Super Bowl TV Ratings

The first Super Bowl between Green Bay and Kansas City was broadcast on CBS and NBC. According to SportsMediaWatch.com, 26.75 million people watched the game on CBS (a 22.6 rating), 24.43 million on NBC (18.5 rating). (See here for definition of ratings point and share.)

The second Super Bowl, exclusively on CBS, drew a 36.8 rating, with more than 39 million people watching. Super Bowl III, Joe Namath's "guarantee game" between the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts, had more than 41 million viewers on NBC.

The highest-rated game was Super Bowl XVI between the 49ers and Bengals on January 24, 1982, which pulled a 49.1 rating. 

Super Bowl XLIX (February 1, 2015) between New England and Seattle was the most- watched (114 million).

The game's broadcast rights have rotated most recently among NBC, CBS and Fox. In 2021, the NFL signed a new media rights agreements that will add ESPN to the Super Bowl rotation beginning in 2026.

Super Bowl Facts & Figures

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots each have six Super Bowl victories—the most of any team. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers each have five wins.

  • With five defeats each, the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots are tied for most Super Bowl losses.

  • The Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans are the only teams that haven't played in a Super Bowl.
  • The Patriots have made the most Super Bowl appearances of any team (11).
  • The championship team receives the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, who won the first two Super Bowls.
  • Because the football season runs into two calendar years, Roman numerals are used to identify each Super Bowl.
  • The Super Bowl venue changes each year. 
  • Tampa Bay, in Super Bowl LV, is the only team to win a Super Bowl in its home venue.
  • Super Bowl Sunday is the second-largest day for food consumption in the United States, with only Thanksgiving ahead of it.
  • The NFL restricts the use of the phrase “Super Bowl” for advertising purposes. Companies come up with creative alternatives, such as referring to it as the “Big Game.”

Sources:

NFL History: Super Bowl Winners, ESPN.
The History of the Super Bowl, The American Historian.
Super Bowl History, Newsday.
Ranking all 51 Super Bowls, ABC News.
Super Bowl History, Ticket City.
Super Bowl Fast Facts, CNN.

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