In 2017, the commercials that ran during the Super Bowl cost sponsors in the neighborhood of $175,000 per second. Viewing parties chowed down on 1.33 billion chicken wings and nearly 30 million slices of pizza from Domino’s and Pizza Hut alone, chasing them with $2.4 billion in alcohol. Combine those numbers with stratospheric ticket prices, and any reasonable observer would conclude that the Super Bowl embodies consumer capitalism at its zenith.
Conservatives within the game have proudly argued that football tutors spectators in these capitalist virtues. Quarterback-turned-congressman Jack Kemp celebrated football as “democratic capitalism” in action; Fran Tarkenton, who incorporated himself as a business and published three books by age 30, called the game “part of our free enterprise system.”
But this has never been true. As former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell once remarked, the NFL is run by “a bunch of fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist on football.” According to Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, few industry associations have more effectively wielded the power of collective advantage. In fact, it was not competition, but rather the NFL’s historic ability to scheme its way around competition — with encouragement from the government and fans — that enabled the creation of the Super Bowl.
In spring 1966, Tex Schramm, general manager of the NFL’s Cowboys, and Lamar Hunt, owner of the American Football League’s Chiefs, agreed that the free market was killing professional football. The best college players could pit the two leagues against one another, sparking competition for talent that produced skyrocketing salaries, most notoriously Joe Namath’s then-record $427,000 contract with the Jets. Veteran players could increase their pay by jumping leagues or by merely threatening to do so.
A merger, Hunt and Schramm decided, would save the owners from themselves by depriving players of leverage: With only one league, there could be no more deals like Namath’s because players would have to abide by the results of the draft instead of weighing a competing offer from the other league. And without the merger, “weak teams like Denver and Boston as well, perhaps, as Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Miami could not long survive a protracted money war,” an NFL spokesman admitted.
In June, Hunt, Schramm and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle publicly revealed their plan to fold the AFL into the NFL, pay indemnities to the Giants and 49ers (who faced local competition from the Jets and Raiders) and play a championship game. Unfortunately, this plan had a problem: The proposed merger clearly violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.