Big game, big business

January 26, 2003|By Evan Weiner

AMERICA IS a nation of local sports fans, as Orioles and Ravens backers can tell you. But there is only one sports event that captivates and has an impact on every community in the nation from Maine to this year's host, San Diego, and all points in-between.

The Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is uniquely American. The Fourth of July is America's birthday party, but the Super Bowl is America's excuse for a party. Supermarkets have "super sales" for countless "super" parties. Super Bowl Sunday is the second-biggest day of food consumption behind only Thanksgiving. The Super Bowl is the top at-home party event of the year, surpassing New Year's Eve.

According to the National Electronic Dealers Association, sales of large screen TVs increase 500 percent during Super Bowl week because the event increases demand for television sets to watch the "big game."

The Beer Institute has data that suggests the Super Bowl is one of the seven biggest sales days of the year behind only Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July.

Newspapers sell advertising for special Super Bowl sections. The Super Bowl is a moneymaker for supermarkets, department stores, bars, snack food makers, breweries and restaurants.

It also is the springboard for companies to start their annual TV, radio and print advertising campaigns.

But it wasn't always like this.

In 1967, it was just the World Championship Game, AFL vs. NFL. The game was held in the 94,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with tickets available for $12, $10 and $6, and roughly 33,000 seats went unsold. It was the last time a Super Bowl or the World Championship Game was not a sellout. Both CBS and NBC televised the game, each using the same TV feed with different announcers and different advertisers.

Today, thanks in great part to Joe Namath and the New York Jets beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts on Jan. 12, 1969, in the first "named" Super Bowl, it's no longer NFL vs. AFL, NFL advertisers vs. AFL advertisers, CBS vs. NBC. In fact, the Disney-owned ABC-TV network broadcasts the game every three years along with Fox and CBS. But in 1967, the American Football League and the Kansas City Chiefs were considered by Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers and the NFL to be part of a "Mickey Mouse league."

The name "Super Bowl," with its Roman numerals, wasn't a product of any focus group or brainstorming sessions. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who founded the AFL because he couldn't get an NFL team in Dallas, thought up the name while he was watching his kids play with a multicolored ball.

"They each had a Super Ball that my wife had given to them and they were always talking about them, and I just used the expression Super Bowl," he said. "It was an accidental thing."

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle didn't like the name, nor did NFL owners. Still, the game had no name and no one had suggested anything else.

Ironically, the Super Ball was a super dud. Wham-O began producing a ball made of Zectron in 1965, two years before Super Bowl I was played. After only a few years, the "double-top secret" formula for Wham-O's competitors copied Zectron, and the Super Ball was out of production by 1976.

"I don't know how much money the Super Bowl means," Mr. Hunt said, "but it's all from a child's toy ball." Even Mr. Rozelle would eventually concede that the "super" name probably played a major role in the event's success.

The event has become so successful that cities bid for the game. It brings in tens of thousands of visitors who spend about $300 million during the Super Bowl week festivities.

The Super Bowl will generate millions of dollars for the ailing airline industry, hotels and motels, rent-a-car agencies and the food industry in San Diego. Across the country, the Super Bowl means money for other businesses.

Evan Weiner is a commentator on The Business of Sports for Westwood One Radio's Metro Source.

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