For four decades after its 1920 inception, the NFL successfully fended off several rival leagues. However, in 1960, it encountered its most serious competitor when the American Football League (AFL) was formed. The AFL vied heavily with the NFL for both players and fans, but by the middle of the decade the strain of competition led to serious merger talks between the two leagues. Prior to the 1966 season, the NFL and AFL reached a merger agreement that was to take effect for the 1970 season. As part of the merger, the champions of the two leagues agreed to meet in a world championship game for professional American football until the merger was effected.
A bowl game is a post-season college football game. The original “bowl game” was the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, California, which was first played in 1902 as the “Tournament East-West football game” as part of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses and moved to the new Rose Bowl Stadium in 1923. The stadium got its name from the fact that the game played there was part of the Tournament of Roses and that it was shaped like a bowl, much like the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut; the Tournament of Roses football game itself eventually came to be known as the Rose Bowl Game. Exploiting the Rose Bowl Game’s popularity, post-season college football contests were created for Miami (the Orange Bowl), New Orleans (the Sugar Bowl), and El Paso, Texas (the Sun Bowl) in 1935, and for Dallas (the Cotton Bowl) in 1937. By the time the first Super Bowl was played, the term “bowl” for any major American football game was well established.
Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, first used the term “Super Bowl” to refer to the NFL-AFL championship game in the merger meetings. Hunt would later say the name was likely in his head because his children had been playing with a Super Ball toy, a vintage example of the ball is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In a July 25, 1966, letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Hunt wrote, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.”
The leagues’ owners chose the name “AFL-NFL Championship Game”, but in July 1966 the Kansas City Star quoted Hunt in discussing “the Super Bowl — that’s my term for the championship game between the two leagues”, and the media immediately began using the term. Although the league stated in 1967 that “not many people like it”, asking for suggestions and considering alternatives such as ‘Merger Bowl’ and ‘The Game’, the Associated Press reported that ‘Super Bowl’ “grew and grew and grew-until it reached the point that there was Super Week, Super Sunday, Super Teams, Super Players, ad infinitum”. ‘Super Bowl’ became official beginning with the third annual game. Roman numerals were first affixed for the fifth edition, in January 1971.
After the NFL’s Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, some team owners feared for the future of the merger. At the time, many doubted the competitiveness of AFL teams compared with their NFL counterparts, though that perception changed when the AFL’s New York Jets defeated the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami. One year later, the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs defeated the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings 23–7 in Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, which was the final AFL-NFL World Championship Game played before the merger. Beginning with the 1970 season, the NFL realigned into two conferences; the former AFL teams plus three NFL teams (the Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns) would constitute the American Football Conference (AFC), while the remaining NFL clubs would form the National Football Conference (NFC). The champions of the two conferences would play each other in the Super Bowl.
The winning team receives the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the coach of the Green Bay Packers, who won the first two Super Bowl games and three of the five preceding NFL championships in 1961, 1962, and 1965. Following Lombardi’s death in September 1970, the trophy was named the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and was the first awarded as such to the Baltimore Colts following their win in Super Bowl V in Miami.
The Super Bowl is currently played on the first Sunday in February. This is due to the NFL current schedule which consists of the opening weekend of the season being held immediately after Labor Day (the first Monday in September), the 17-week regular season (where teams each play 16 games and have one bye), the first three rounds of the playoffs, and the Super Bowl two weeks after the two Conference Championship Games. This schedule has been in effect since Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2004. The date of the Super Bowl can thus be determined from the date of the preceding Labor Day. For example, Labor Day 2015 was September 7: therefore the next Super Bowl is scheduled exactly five months later on February 7, 2016.
Originally, the game took place in early to mid-January. For Super Bowl I there was only one round of playoffs: the pre-merger NFL and AFL Championship Games. The addition of two playoff rounds (first in 1967 and then in 1978), an increase in regular season games from 14 to 16 (1978), and the establishment of one bye-week per team (1990) have caused the Super Bowl to be played later. Partially offsetting these season-lengthening effects, simultaneous with the addition of two regular season games in 1978, the season was started earlier. Prior to 1978 the season started as late as September 21. Now, since Labor Day is always the first Monday of September, September 13 is the latest possible date for the first full Sunday set of games (Since 2002, the regular season has started with the Kickoff Game on the Thursday after Labor Day).