How the Super Bowl Came to Be

Recap of First Super Bowl in 1967 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Max McGee was unlikely hero in the first Super Bowl.
Getty Images

Just over half the seats were filled in Los Angeles Memorial Stadium, roughly 32,000 empty, for Super Bowl I, named retroactively, to replace the longwinded AFL-NFL World Championship Game title. Many complained about the top ticket prices of $12. It is amazing how much things have changed.

The first Super Bowl game was played on January 15, 1967, when the National Football League (NFL) champion Green Bay Packers (13-2) defeated the American Football League (AFL) champion Kansas City Chiefs (12-2-1) by a score of 35–10. 

History of the Championship Game

According to one account, Lamar Hunt, architect of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, came across his daughter's "Super Ball," an ultra-bouncy toy that was popular among kids in the 1960s, and was given the inspiration for the name, "Super Bowl" to represent the championship game between the upstart American Football League and the old-guard National Football League.

"Why not," Lamar Hunt wondered, "Call our championship game the Super Bowl?"

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle thought the name too gimmicky and lacked the weight worthy of his league. He suggested calling the championship game the “Pro Bowl” or even “The Big One” before settling on the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.” Considered too lengthy a name by most fans, sports writers and broadcasters, the game was referred to informally as the “Super Bowl.” Not until the championship game’s third season did Rozelle agree to officially refer to the game as the Super Bowl.

While host cities are now selected upwards of three years in advance, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was not named as the site of the first Super Bowl until six weeks before kickoff. 

Unlikely Hero of the Game

The game itself featured an unlikely hero in Green Bay wide receiver Max McGee. McGee was a backup and did not receive much playing time. In 14 games the previous season, he had caught only four passes for 91 yards.

According to a legendary account, McGee had spent most of the previous night out on the town and was in no shape to play football, no less a championship game. McGee knew the only way he would get playing time was if first-string wide receiver Boyd Dowler got hurt.

McGee said, "I waddled in about 7:30 in the morning and I could barely stand up for the kickoff. On the bench Paul (Hornung) kept needling me, 'What would you do if you had to play?' And I said, 'No way, there's no way I could make it.'"

As fate would have it, Dowler was injured early in the game, and McGee was suddenly thrust into the game. Just moments after entering the game, he caught a 37-yard one-handed pass from Bart Starr to cap off an 80-yard drive that gave the Packers an early lead, and the first recorded Super Bowl touchdown. On the day, McGee caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns as the Packers went on to win the first Super Bowl.

Television Audience

The television audience for Super Bowl I is estimated to have been 60 million television viewers on two networks. For comparison, Super Bowl LI in 2017 had just over 111 million watching on one network. Super Bowl I remains the only joint broadcast in Super Bowl history.

The reason for two networks broadcasting the game was that CBS held the rights to broadcast NFL games and NBC had the rights to air AFL games. Each network paid $1 million for the rights to televise the first Super Bowl. While CBS produced the feed of the game, each network employed its own broadcast crews. The two networks fought for ratings points, and NBC ultimately emerged with a slightly larger audience. On average a one-minute television commercial sold for $75,000, compared to 2017, where a 30-second ad cost $5 million. 

Player Bonuses

In the first Super Bowl, each player on the Packers received a $15,000 bonus for winning the game, while members of the Chiefs earned $7,500. In comparison to 2017, every member of the winning team pocketed $107,000, whether the player stepped on the field or not. The losers each received $53,000.