The very great football player and droll media contrarian Duane Thomas once famously said of the Super Bowl: "If it's the ultimate game, how come they're playing it again next year?"
The answer, Duane, is quite simple because more than 100 million people are expected to watch the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers go head to head next Sunday in New Orleans. Putting a 30-second advertisement in front of all those eyeballs costs around $3.8 million, and CBS, which is broadcasting the game, has already sold out of ad inventory.
There's something else, though more people are starting to tune in for the halftime show than for the game itself.
Last year, 111 million people watched the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, setting a record for the most-watched television show in U.S. history. Several million more (114 million altogether, the Nielsen Co. reported) checked out Madonna's Cleopatra-entering-Rome-themed halftime show, which delivered the over-the-top pop culture extravaganza we now demand.
The numbers are likely to be even greater when Beyoncé picks up the mike between halves this year (whether she's actually singing live or not).
But it hasn't always been this way. Back when Thomas suited up with the Cowboys for Super Bowl V, the halftime show featured the Southeast Missouri State Indians Marching Band, Anita Bryant and the singing group Up With People. The 1971 game, though played in a sold-out Orange Bowl stadium, was blacked out in Miami under old NFL television rules.
The game has obviously changed since then and so has the halftime show.
"The Super Bowl is now an unofficial holiday," said Lawrence Randall, NFL Network's director of programming and the NFL's director of entertainment programming, the man overseeing the live performances before the game, including the national anthem, and during halftime.
"The spectacle has grown so huge, and the hype leading up to the game is so great. The halftime show needed to fit into that grand scale," Randall said from his Los Angeles office.
Back when the Super Bowl kicked off more than 40 years ago, halftime shows consisted of acts such as the Grambling State University marching band, Anaheim High School drill team, the University of Texas marching band with Judy Mallett (Miss Texas 1973) on fiddle, the Rockettes, George Burns and Mickey Rooney.
As quaint as those acts sound now (the legendary Up With People performed four times), there were also well-intended, if not oddly placed, tributes to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and even Motown.
However, things took an unlikely turn: It was the B-list entertainment consortium known as the Wayans family who changed the Super Bowl halftime business, albeit as an obscure footnote for pop-culture historians.
In 1992, Fox Network's "In Living Color," featuring the Wayans brothers, programmed a special episode to run opposite the Super Bowl halftime show. They reportedly pulled 20 million to 25 million viewers from the CBS telecast of Super Bowl XXVI. It likely didn't hurt that they were up against singer Gloria Estefan and Olympic figure skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill.
The NFL realized that they need to up their game, and the next year they went as big as they could go bringing in the King of Pop himself.
Sports executive Jim Steeg negotiated the deal with Michael Jackson to perform at the 1993 Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl. Steeg is the person most credited with growing the Super Bowl into the weeklong party it has become as he led the NFL Special Events Department from 1979 to 2004, supervising all aspects of the Super Bowl during that time.
"It was originally (NFL Commissioner) Pete Rozelle's vision way back in the '60s to make the Super Bowl bigger and grander than all those other football games you'd seen," Steeg said from his San Diego office. "So you kind of begged, borrowed, stole and adapted from everybody else's ideas."
Steeg said he began shifting the focus of the halftime show from the stadium to the television audience in the early '80s.
"It stayed the same type of spectacle with some celebrities, but not the A-list performer types," Steeg said.
After the 1992 Fox "ambush" and the resulting ratings drop, the focus changed, though Steeg said the transition began a decade earlier in 1982, with Jackson pal Diana Ross singing the national anthem at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Mich.
"That kind of changed how all sporting events treated the national anthem," Steeg said. "Until that time we had the Colgate Five or people like Tom Sullivan not exactly big stars, you know.
"All of sudden you've got Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, all these celebrities who are performing the anthem, and I think that was really a transformation," he said.
For Steeg to get Jackson to perform at the Super Bowl, he first had to explain to the singer what the Super Bowl was, because Jackson had no clue. None.
"We were talking and I said 'This game will be broadcast in 180 countries' and his response was 'You mean this game will be broadcast in countries where I'll never do a concert?' " Steeg said.
"And we said 'Yes' and at that moment I could see the light went off for Michael and he really got what we were talking about. 'It's bigger than anything else I've done,' he said."
The television ratings spike was huge for Jackson's performance, which included "Billie Jean," "Black or White" and "We Are the World" with a children's choir and stadium-wide audience participation.
After that, stars began lining up for the exposure and subsequent record sales that followed a gig on the Super Bowl stage. Randall said while he was a "kid" at the time of Jackson's show, artists he talks with still mention the significance of that performance.
"Michael Jackson and Prince (in 2007) are the shows people ask about the most," he said. "They want to parse it out and know how we did certain things and how we can make it unique to them."
The Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake "costume malfunction" injected notoriety to the event, but stars now line up for consideration on the bill.
Who's performing at the Super Bowl halftime show has become a bigger question than who's hosting the Academy Awards.
"The Super Bowl is unique in that there is no really set demo(graphic). Everyone watches. It's really 8 to 80," Randall said. "Who has that catalog? Who has the music that can do that? We're in a fortunate place now with how it's grown."