How Super Bowl Sunday Became an Unofficial Holiday

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:56:08 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Kristi Machado/U.S. Air Force

Every February, the Super Bowl inspires millions of people to gather around their TVs, put out some snacks, fill their coolers and turn on the big game. It has become an unofficial national holiday in the United States, arguably more celebrated than days like Labor Day and President's Day.

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So, how did a sporting event become such a beloved — and lucrative — occasion? The story of this football phenomenon is an impressive one and might change how you view this momentous Sunday in the years to come. Let’s tune in!

An Entertainment Event Like No Other

Over the decades, the Super Bowl has become a mega-entertainment event, with more than half of all Americans tuning in each year. Some years, more than 75% of Americans watch the show. It’s hands down the most-watched TV special in the country (with few exceptions).

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These high numbers mean that commercial spots during the game are highly coveted and monster expensive. Advertisers shell out mind-boggling amounts of money for 15 or 30-second clips, and the whole event is worth mega-millions of dollars. Landing a spot in this event is sought by many.

Only the Most Famous Faces

Given its importance as an unofficial national holiday, only the best of the best are called to perform in the highly anticipated halftime show. A number of viewers tune in exclusively for the halftime show, merely tolerating the football game leading up to it.

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Past entertainment line-ups include Beyonce Knowles, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Madonna. Most recently, Shakira and J-Lo took the stage. Landing this gig is a milestone in many performers' careers and wins the singer major reputation points. These incredibly elaborate performances have become a staple of the occasion.

The First Super Bowl

We know that the Super Bowl is a major event these days, but how did it come to be? What were the Super Bowls like in the beginning? The very first Super Bowl took place in the year 1967. This was a time when televisions were new commodities in the home, and families were eager for new entertainment.

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The first Super Bowl was by no means a failure — more than 50 million people watched nationwide. This number is nothing compared to current day stats, however, with the number of viewers hovering around 110 million.

The Founding Rivalry

The first Super Bowl was actually called the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game" before they switched the name. That's because it was based around a tense rivalry between the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL). After years of competing against each other for fans and funding, they decided to join together.

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The big game on Sunday was their way of marking this transition — while making money at the same time. For four years, the Super Bowl featured competing teams from each league, before they finally merged into the NFL.

Parallels with War

When the Super Bowl came about, organizers quickly realized they should publicly make friends with the U.S. military. As a result, military planes started doing flyovers for the game, giving it an air of patriotism that viewers in the 1960s found very compelling.

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Part of this natural partnership was the violent nature of the game — as you've probably noticed, football involves a lot of aggression. They even borrow war words like "bomb" and "trenches," making the game feel akin to battle. If there's anything that revs up Americans, it's a good old violent battle.

Strategic Marketing

Aligning themselves with the military was only the beginning of the patriotization of the Super Bowl. The 1970 Super Bowl included a halftime show with an 1815 battle reenactment. The NFL looked for any way to paint the Super Bowl as representing American pride.

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The marketing strategy worked, and Americans soon began to support the Super Bowl as if they were supporting an integral part of their country. Cheering on a football team became synonymous with cheering on the United States, and this underlying patriotic motivation has largely remained the same.

Rising Fame

As the Super Bowl solidified itself as a country-wide holiday, the teams that participated became even more famous. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, enjoyed a long winning streak in the 1970s and were nicknamed America's Team. The most successful teams won the biggest endorsements and made the most money.

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Soon after, the public started noticing individual players on these teams more and more. Players like Walter Payton, Roger Staubach and O.J. Simpson were propelled into sport celebrity-dom. This level of television exposure for football players was previously unheard of in America.

The Birth of the Commercial Craze

Commercials during the Super Bowl were always a hot spot for companies, but there wasn't always such a culture-craze surrounding them. In the beginning, people watched for the game, and the commercials were like any other ad. Things took a turn in 1973, however, with one commercial starring Farrah Fawcett and football player Joe Namath.

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Namath says he's "so excited he's gonna get creamed," and then Fawcett sensuously covers his face in shaving cream. This steamy commercial caused quite a reaction with viewers and kickstarted a long history of provocative, shocking and hilarious Super Bowl commercials.

Apple Makes History

In 1984, Apple made history with its Super Bowl commercial promoting Macintosh computers. The clip was a profound one, building off George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, and it left many viewers intensely curious about the new product. In it, a woman with a sledgehammer runs from authorities, seeking to destroy a 1984-like broadcast.

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The commercial made such a big impact that some still consider it to be the best commercial of all time. Not only did it initiate Apple's long and successful line of products, but it made the Super Bowl the event to watch for cool commercials.

The Legacy Continues

The standards for Super Bowl commercials have only continued to rise. Super Bowl 2020 ads included A-list celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Bryan Cranston, Post Malone and Rainn Wilson. They had incredibly developed plot lines, extensive costumes and even a CGI dragon.

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Super Bowl audiences have now come to expect these oftentimes hilarious, spontaneous and complex ads. Where commercials used to be the breaks in the real show, they have become yet another integral part of the Super Bowl experience. Some people tune in just so they won’t be out of the loop the next day at work!

Just How Much Does a Commercial Cost?

It's only natural to assume that as the Super Bowl has risen in popularity so have the prices for commercials. After all, the bigger the audience gets, the more companies will want airtime. But just how much do these big-name companies pay to reserve a commercial during the game?

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In the beginning, an average 30-second Super Bowl commercial cost $40,000. Today, the same 30-second slot can cost more than $5.6 million. That's right, businesses must set aside a significant portion of their marketing budget to snag these spots — and they are limited.

A Turning Point

The first decade of the Super Bowl was without a doubt a successful one. The game was consistently sold out, ad-space was highly coveted and viewers were coming back for more year after year. One decision, however, upgraded the Super Bowl from a popular game to a national treasure.

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They finally moved the show to U.S. Eastern Time Zone primetime. This simple decision led to a 27% jump in viewers. From then on, the Super Bowl was cemented as a must-see annual American tradition — as it has remained to this day.

Excitement = Views

When taking a broad look at Super Bowl games since the 1960s, there is one trend that jumps out. Other than a few dips here and there, the number of points teams score at the Super Bowl has been rising.

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This goes for all NFL games in general, actually. The average points per game in 1977 were 17.2 — in 2019, the average was 22.8. The more points in a game, the more exciting it is to watch. The more exciting it is to watch, the more people buy tickets to see a game or tune in on TV.

Exploding Ticket Costs

If you went to the very first Super Bowl game, you paid just $10 for a seat. According to GoBankingRates.com, those $10 are technically equivalent to $78 in today's money. Even so, those tickets were dirt cheap by today's standards.

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In 2020, the average price for a Super Bowl ticket was $7,622. If you wanted the best seats in the house, it would cost somewhere in the six digits. Does it sound a little ridiculous? That's how much this sport has grown in popularity and importance.

Humble Halftime Shows

When you think of the Super Bowl today, you obviously think of the glitzy halftime shows filled with hundreds of dancers, numerous costume changes and maybe even fireworks. Back in the day, however, the halftime show was a much more humble affair.

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The first Super Bowl games saw local marching bands take the stage, some college and some at the high school level. Gradually, the NFL contracted well-known performers like Ella Fitzgerald, The Rockettes and Michael Jackson. Some of the early performances included comedians, ice skaters and even an Elvis Presley impersonator instead of the King himself.

Big Shows Lead to Big Mistakes

The bigger the halftime shows get, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong — and things have certainly gone wrong in the past. At the 2013 halftime show, for example, the power went out on Beyonce Knowles' performance.

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Another massive slip-up occurred during the 2004 halftime show with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Jackson experienced a "wardrobe malfunction" — later admitted to be deliberate — that effectively exposed her breast on live television when Timberlake pulled on her costume. This event was highly controversial and caused quite an uproar. With so many people watching live, it's impossible to take anything back.

Costs to the Host

Thousands of people head to the Super Bowl stadium each year — those who can afford the tickets, anyway. Factoring in performance logistics at halftime, food, cameras and the countless other expenses that go into the night, it begs the question: Just how much does it cost to host the Super Bowl?

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According to WalletHub, it costs more than $14 million to have the Super Bowl take place in your stadium. That's a lot of green, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. At the end of the day, whoever hosts the game ends up winning — financially.

Benefits to the Area

Several stadiums have hosted the Super Bowl. No matter where it ends up taking place, however, the surrounding area is always certain to get a bump in their economy. That's because thousands of people flock to the city and pay for hotels, food, etc. while they’re there.

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The Hard Rock Stadium in Miami has been a long-time host for the Super Bowl, and it was estimated that the 2020 economic benefit to the area was around $500 million. With wealthy game-attendees eager to spend that much money on tickets, that number shouldn’t be surprising.

Food Sales Soar

Sales don't just increase for the city where the Super Bowl takes place. This weekend is celebrated all across the country, and people purchase plenty of food and snacks for their Super Bowl parties. People consume an estimated 1.4 billion chicken wings and 10 million ribs.

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Pizza orders also go up by 50% on Super Bowl Sunday. As you can see, the Super Bowl holiday is a financial landmine for those businesses lucky enough to offer what the people want. Fans spend money across the board for this February Sunday, even when their own favorite teams don’t make the cut.

The Evolution of the Coin Toss

The beginning of the NFL Super Bowl has always been marked by a coin toss. This moment decides who will have possession of the ball first, and until 1977, it was executed by game officials. They decided to change the rules in the years that followed.

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Instead, they gave past NFL players the chance to flip the coin. In this way, the NFL honored them and their legacies. It's one of the traditions that will likely stick around forever, no matter how many ways the game changes in other aspects.

An Opportunity for High Bets

Wherever there's a competition, betting is sure to follow close behind. People have loved to bet for ages — we bet on horse races, presidential elections and casino games. Why would a massive football game be any different? Well, it's not.

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In recent years, people have bet more than $325 million on the outcome of the Super Bowl. Roughly 22.7 million Americans try their hand at predicting the results in this way, and it rarely pays off. An estimated 92% of those who bet have lost money in the process.

The Necessary Manpower

The impressiveness of Super Bowl Sunday doesn't just happen on its own. It's an immense production that requires months of preparation, hours of assembly and lots of manpower. Surprisingly, many of the people working for the Super Bowl do it for free.

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That's right, 10,000 Super Bowl workers are volunteers. They stay on for the 10 days of Super Bowl events, helping out of the goodness of their hearts — and perhaps a love of football. Plenty of workers are paid, of course, but some extra helping hands certainly don’t hurt.

The Real Paycheck to Play at Halftime

You may have wondered how much halftime performers make for their appearances. After all, such a large event should pay their singers handsomely, right? Not necessarily. The NFL covers all production costs of the halftime show, but the actual performers don't see a single penny. Shocking, right?

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Sure, productions can cost millions of dollars, but don't the stars deserve a paycheck? Apparently, their compensation comes in the form of exposure and promotion. Playing the show gets your image and music delivered to more than half the country, and that is bound to help with record sales.

Changing American Habits

All those increased Super Bowl Sunday sales for meat and snacks aren't for nothing — people are planning their viewing experience. According to WalletHub statistics, 27% of people in 2020 went to a Super Bowl viewing party. That's a good chunk of people planning to go to a social event for the day.

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It hasn't always been this way, but the Super Bowl has built such a successful holiday around the game that it has become commonplace to have a party. In this way, the game has shaped American culture irrevocably.

The Beer Companies Love It

It's not just food sales that increase for Super Bowl Sunday, it's beer sales. In fact, beer has become a quintessential staple of the holiday. The image of a beer and meat-filled Super Bowl has been so successfully integrated into American culture that approximately 50 million cases of beer are sold for this day alone.

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That's 90% more than average beer sales. Ever wonder why so many Super Bowl commercials are for beer brands like Budweiser and Heineken? Well, now you know. This holiday brings in mega-sales for all of them.

The Competition

The Super Bowl is consistently one of the most-watched television specials in the history of the United States. There have been a few challengers throughout the years, however. The finale episode of M*A*S*H saw almost 106 million viewers, which is more than many Super Bowls.

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The only thing to surpass every single Super Bowl in viewership is the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, with somewhere between 125 and 150 million watchers. Someday, the Super Bowl might rival those numbers, but for now, it trails a good 11 million people behind.

Football or Ads?

In its early days, the Super Bowl was all about football. It was the game that people wanted to see and the game that people talked about in the following days. But here’s the thing: Only so many people are actually interested in football.

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In order to get more than 100 million viewers on Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL had to expand what the special featured. This is what led to the over-the-top halftime shows and specialized ads — both treats for viewers that inspired non-fans to watch. And guess what? It worked.

Payday for the Players

Salaries for football players have increased dramatically since the 1970s. Back then, some players had to work a second job just to make ends meet. Players nowadays don't want for much, and the Super Bowl is like a giant cherry on top.

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In 2020, Super Bowl winners took home $124,000. That's enough money to make them work hard for that championship. The losers aren't entirely out of luck, either — they took home $62,000. Against those numbers, the Vince Lombardi Trophy is just a hunk of metal.

Mixing with Politics?

For years, the Super Bowl was largely separate from the world of politics. Certain prominent figures might have shown up to watch, but that was about it. Starting in 1980, however, teams started to get invitations to the White House.

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It was President Jimmy Carter who invited the Pittsburgh Steelers over for a visit. Since then, winning teams have visited the sitting president on a semi-regular basis. In recent years, this tradition has changed somewhat, as some players have started refusing to show up at the White House as a kind of protest against the current president.

A Celebration for Corporate America

At the end of the day, the Super Bowl is the ultimate holiday for corporate America. It makes lots of companies a lot of money, and this is part of why it's so heavily marketed. On the other hand, it's also a time that family and friends get together to have a good time.

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There's something about millions of fellow Americans all watching the same broadcast at the same time that brings the country together as one — if only for the night. In that sense, the Super Bowl truly is a patriotic holiday.