For the third time in history, Houston plays host to the Super Bowl. On February 5, 2017, the Super Bowl returns to the Lone Star State for its 51st game, and the changes made to the city in preparation for the big event are unparalleled.
In the tail end of 2016, 10,000 volunteers, serving as ambassadors for game attendees, showed up for orientation in anticipation of an event that, for many football fans, feels like a homecoming.
For months, not-so-subtle signs of the Super Bowl have been popping up everywhere in Houston – four LED screens wrapped around 15-foot football- shaped structures, displaying countdown clocks and other important messages, have been installed around the city at NRG Stadium, George Bush International Airport, William P. Hobby Airport, and Discovery Green. Or how about the artwork? Interactive art installations (some rotating, some with facial recognition), a giant trumpet sculpture, and painted intersections are some of the few transformations to grace Super Bowl central. Downtown streets have gone through major facelifts, lanes have direction changes, and other streetscape and landscaping improvements abound.
Houston’s Super Bowl Host Committee has been committed to making the Super Bowl accessible to fans as well as interactive, even if you aren’t one of the lucky ones to get a ticket to the game itself.
To start things off, many locals attended a “Touchdown Tour.” The tours are a series of free events around Texas to connect fans who share a love of the game.
And for game week itself, Super Bowl LIVE, a free event in downtown Houston from January 27 – February 5, 2017, is a fan festival and exhibit with “pop up” performances for entertainment across the block, centered around Discovery Green.
With so much at stake to make these often permanent changes to the Houston cityscape, planning was well under way years before the Big Game’s first kickoff, all with football’s biggest fans in mind.
“We want to bring the excitement of Super Bowl LI into the community so everyone is able to have a great Super Bowl experience,” said Sallie Sargent, the president and CEO of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee.
It’s clear that, in addition to leaving the nation with an impactful football legacy, Texans also have big and generous hearts in sharing their love for the national pastime, never missing a pass in keeping fans connected.
Not only Houston, but Texas as a whole has a long-lasting connection to the Super Bowl that’s worth looking into. Here’s some of what makes Texas’ hand in football – and the Super Bowl itself – so formative.
THE NAME OF THE GAME
In the 1950s, Arkansas-born and Texas-raised sportsman and entrepreneur Lamar Hunt, unable to get a license from the National Football League to found a Dallas team, decided to found instead a whole league of his own: the American Football League.
Within a few short years, the AFL was a huge success. Hunt’s Dallas Texans of the AFL were competing against the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. But by the mid-1960s, competition between the two leagues became increasingly unprofitable.
In 1966, the AFL and the NFL began negotiations to merge the two leagues into one, set for 1970.
During negotiations, the two leagues proposed season-ending games between their team champions, putting the best players of both leagues onto one field.
The first championship game in 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs was called the AFL-NFL Championship Game.
Hunt, the owner and founder of the Kansas City Chiefs (formerly known as the Dallas Texans) and of the AFL, had been using the term “Super Bowl,” but the name didn’t catch on until a few years later. Hunt later explained that his daughter had a popular bouncy ball toy called the “Super Ball,” and the wordplay was a natural transposition. (The world “bowl” was already in use at the time for college football championships.)
Hunt said of those first business talks about playoff games, “The words owed something like this: ‘No, not those games — the one I mean is the final game. You know, the Super Bowl.’”
Whether credit goes to Hunt alone or if the name of the game had a more organic evolution through the media and word of mouth is up for debate, but in this case, the legend is here to stay, most hardcore football fans and official sportscasters adopting it into game lore.
Even Hunt himself had reservations about the name, intending the moniker to be a placeholder until the league came up with something more official-sounding. As he told an AP reporter in 1970, “Kinda silly, isn’t it? I’m not proud of it. But nobody’s come up with anything better.”
While the coinage of the Super Bowl name has had its critics (Super Bowl founding father Don Weiss mentions in his 2002 memoir “The Making of the Super Bowl” that a contest was held in 1969 to rebrand the name), “Ultimate Bowl,” “Merger Bowl”, and “Premier Bowl” just don’t have the same ring. The catchy name was here to stay – with one addition:
The Roman numerals used for each championship game are also a credit to Lamar Hunt – he wrote a note to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, saying that the inclusion of Roman numerals gave the game “more dignity.”
After the third Big Game, “Super Bowl” was the official name. After the fifth game, the Roman numerals had been tagged on as a permanent fixture (with the exception of Super Bowl 50 to prevent confusion).
Though the Green Bay Packers’ consecutive wins during the first two years had many football fans questioning if the AFL teams would be able to compete with the NFL teams, the following year, the AFL’s New York Jets won the Super Bowl title against the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, and the Kansas City Chiefs won the fourth Super Bowl, evening the score and giving fans confidence that the merger could be a success.
Since the merger between the leagues, former AFL teams have won a total of 10 Super Bowls, and original NFL teams have won a total of 23. So far, two Super Bowls have been won by teams created after the two leagues joined.
In 1972, Hunt was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1984, he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. The trophy presented to American Football Conference Champions is called the Lamar Hunt Trophy. While Hunt left a wide-ranging impact on the sports world, from tennis to ice hockey to soccer, the happy accident that led to the naming of the Super Bowl will be associated with Hunt forever.
The Super Bowl, a term that has become so guardedly trademarked and aggressively regulated that advertisers can’t even say, “Super Bowl” in ads aired during the Big Game unless they have paid for the privilege as official Super Bowl sponsors – all started with an off-the-cuff remark about a popular children’s toy.
THE TEXAS CONNECTION
Texas has a proud football heritage – from high school to college level and all the way to pro. The Texas Sports Hall of Fame even has a Football Hall of Fame specific to high school players. Not only that, but the Super Bowl connection to the state is a strong one.
Texas has a habit of churning out superstar athletes, boasting 30 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees, from Temple-born Sammy Baugh in the 1960s to Dallas-born Tim Brown in 2015.
Former Texas Longhorns have been drafted into the NFL, some going on to play in the Super Bowl, some notably going on to win multiple NFL championships, such as offensive guard Dan Neil with the Broncos in 1997 and 1998, and Casey Hampton with the Steelers in 2006 and 2009.
Famous Houstonians have played in more than one Super Bowl: Larry Izzo, Ted Johnson, Thurman Thomas.
Not to be forgotten, The Houston Oilers (now known as the Tennessee Titans) were the first champions of the AFL in 1960 and 1961, back before the big AFL-NFL merger. The Oilers also played in the 1962 AFL Championship, losing to the Dallas Texans.
Of all of these impressive teams and players, the Dallas Cowboys have a Super Bowl connection that has left a mark on history. Here’s how the Cowboys became “America’s Team” and grew to national acclaim.
Five-time winners and eight-time super bowl players, the Dallas Cowboys, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, and the San Francisco 49ers, are among teams that have played in the Super Bowl the most times in NFL history.
But for the Cowboys, it wasn’t always this way.
In the 1960s, the fledgling team missed the college draft their first year and at first didn’t seem to recover, despite experienced coach and Texan Tom Landry’s efforts. The Cowboys did not win a single game their first year, with a record of 0-11-1. After six sea- sons, the Cowboys finally broke even, and in 1966 they won the Eastern Conference title, though they continued to miss out on other championship games such as the Cotton Bowl, and barely missed appearing in the very first Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys continued to struggle until 1970, the year of the AFL-NFL merger. They finally played in Super Bowl V, but lost 16-13 to the Baltimore Colts, and were dubbed by the media as, “Next Year’s Champions,” seeming to always get so close to a win but having to wait until the next year. It turned out that this next year was literal – the Cowboys won the NFC the following year and won Super Bowl VI against the Miami Dolphins, 24-3.
The Cowboys played in the Super Bowl again in 1975, and achieved their second Super Bowl victory in 1978, defeating the Denver Broncos 27-10. Two players won Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors that year: defensive tackle Randy White and defensive end Harvey Martin. The game was the first Super Bowl to be played in prime time and was broadcast by CBS. During the 1978 season, editor-in-chief of NFL Films Bob Ryan noted the enormous popularity of the Dallas Cowboys nationwide, calling them, “America’s Team.”
The Cowboys continued to surge in popularity and had consecutive winning streaks of winning seasons until 1986, and with a change of ownership under Jerry Jones and new head coach Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys had only one game win all season. But with strategic trades and draft choices, by the following year, the Cowboys turned it all around and missed the playoffs in 1990 by only one game.
In 1992 and 1993, the Cowboys won consecutive Super Bowl titles, a total of four Super Bowl victories in all, and their last big win came in 1996 in Super Bowl XXX, a total of five Lombardi trophies in all. However, for the next two decades, despite valiant efforts, the team failed to reach the NFC title game. A slew of coaches and changes in players followed, and for a while, things looked grim. Just as the Cowboys seemed to be rising again, quarterback Tony Romo suffered injuries to his collar bone in 2015, and a back injury at the start of the 2016 season.
But lately, things are looking up again for the dogged Cowboys. Rookie Dak Prescott has been filling in and holding his own as a team leader, and Romo was officially active for the first time all season as Prescott’s back- up on November 20, 2016.
Even without a recent championship win, the Cowboys have left their mark in NFL his- tory. With a brand new training facility and 2016 season wins, we have a feeling they’ll be back at the Super Bowl soon.
THEN AND NOW
Before the AFL-NFL merger, two teams on the field and the two football leagues weren’t the only ones competing – CBS and NBC paid $1 million to broadcast the inaugural game between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs. NBC ended up being the victor with a slightly larger audience. The first Big Game was also the last to have a joint broadcast.
Networks weren’t alone in competing for pro t during that inaugural game: the AFL and the NFL teams used rival football brands. The NFL played with Wilson brand, “The Duke,” while the AFL used J5-V by Spalding. The Spalding footballs were arguably skinner and longer, making them easier to pass, but the Chiefs still lost the game, 35-10. If they had won, we might have been looking at a 1960s version of “Deflategate.” Even so, it was probably a wise choice to standardize the type of regulation footballs used in each Super Bowl since.
In the early games, the cost of a 30-second commercial was roughly $78,000. Nowadays, that figure runs along the lines of $5 million, or $166,666 per second.
It takes a while for anything new to get the ball rolling – The first AFL-NFL World Championship Game had a ton of empty seats. Over 32,000 to be precise. Nowadays, the Super Bowl sells out months in advance, to the point that the annual ticket lottery has become an institution, giving non-season ticket holders a chance to go to the game without paying out the nose for the privilege. Lottery winners are granted the ability to purchase two tickets each at face value.
Ticket prices for the first Super Bowl were $12 for the best seats, and still, fans complained about the high cost. Now, the average ticket price runs close to $5,000, with the most expensive tickets ranging in the tens of thousands. The most expensive tickets sold in 2015 were around $250,000, near the 50 yard line. No wonder most fans would rather shell out that kind of dough for a at screen TV and host their own block parties from the comfort of home.
Although the cowboys have dominated Texas’ Super legacy, they may no longer be the only team to have a claim to Super Bowl fame.
In 2002, the NFL started a new franchise in the state, the Houston Texans. So far, they’ve won three AFC South titles, their latest win as recent as 2015, with a NFL playoff appearance also in 2015.
With no Super Bowl wins yet, as the Cowboys’ resilient history shows, Texas fans and natives know it’s only a matter of time before the Vince Lombardi Trophy is in the Houston Texans’ hands.
As the NFL continues to change, Texas will surely continue to play a major part in shaping the national league and, by extension, the nature of the game.