How John Elway Saved the Super Bowl Brand

The Super Bowl 48 blowout was noteworthy for being noteworthy.

It was watched by 112.2 million viewers, setting yet another all-time television record.

john elway super bowl
The narrative in the wake of the surprising numbers – most assumed a blowout would send ratings down from previous years – centered on the power of football. While this cannot be denied, the power of the NFL doesn’t explain why it set an all-time viewership record for a game that was literally over after the first play from scrimmage.

Something else was at work here. It’s not the NFL brand. It’s the Super Bowl brand. While so much is discussed when it comes to the brands of other companies during the Super Bowl, nothing is ever written about the game’s brand.

We mistakenly believe that the Super Bowl brand has always been strong. We believe that everyone has always watched the Super Bowl. We adhere to the NFL’s accepted story that the Super Bowl is America’s Game and the game itself – the football one being played in between commercials – is largely meaningless.

That, of course, is wrong.

John Elway nearly killed the Super Bowl. Then he saved it. Then he watched in horror as Roger Goodell’s world domination was complete.

When the Super Bowl Shuffle Bears won the Super Bowl, 92.5 million people watched. The game would hit that lofty number only once – the Super Bowl between the Cowboys and Steelers in 1996 drew 94 million – before the Bears returned to play Peyton Manning and 93 million people watched that game. The ratings have gone up since, with the last five games surpassing 100 million.

So how the hell did John Elway nearly kill the Super Bowl?

Oh young friends, let’s return to the 1980’s when the Bears’ Super Bowl destruction of the Patriots begat routinely epic Super Bowl blowouts, culminating with the 49ers’ humiliating 55-10 win over the Broncos.

Only 73 million people tuned in – within range of what the NFC Championship Game gets now.

The brand of the Super Bowl had suffered what appeared to be irreparable harm – the first two Super Bowls featuring the Buffalo Bills failed to crack 80 million. However, the two wins by the Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson both pushed past 90 million.

Why is this important? Because it mean that people were deciding when to tune in to – and when to tune out – the Super Bowl. It was not the cultural touchstone it is today. There were 10 million Americans, at least, who watched Super Bowl 27 because the Cowboys were playing – not because the Super Bowl was on.

It speaks to the devastation of the AFC for their pathetic 13-game losing streak in the Super Bowl.

I vividly remember going with my parents to their friends’ house for both Cowboys/Bills Super Bowl games. Each time, the only football discussion pre-game was hoping the game would be close by halftime. No one made any picks – who the hell would pick the Bills?

We talked about the food, the music, the pregame, the halftime and the commercials. Despite in a room of men I knew were huge football fans, no one was talking about the game. As a 12-year old football-watching dork, I didn’t get it.

The game of football had become almost completely irrelevant to football’s biggest game.  Because of this, the NFL focused on what they could control – i.e., everything but the game.

That’s why halftime went from Up With People to Michael Jackson. That’s why the National Anthem upgraded from no-names to Whitney Houston. That’s why the pregame show now involves performances by The Band Perry and Phillip Phillips.

Okay, you’re saying, “I’m reading word 600 and I still don’t know how John Elway saved the Super Bowl.”
I’m terrible like that.

But the Super Bowl brand was saved on January 25, 1998. That’s when the AFC curse was broken. And that’s when the Super Bowl became a football game again.

The Broncos entered the game as 11.5-point underdogs. It felt like it was going to be a repeat of what we had seen, almost yearly and without fail, for nearly two decades – an NFC team dominating and clinching the Lombardi Trophy before the halftime show started.

A high school junior, my friends and I didn’t even gather to watch. Why bother? We had all hung out the previous Sunday night for the Royal Rumble – we were on the Rock’s bandwagon very early and Stone Cold Steve Austin – so the Super Bowl didn’t register for us. Besides, Favre and the Packers were going to go back-to-back and assume their place along the great teams in NFL history.

I don’t have to rehash what happened. Watch the helicopter spin by Elway and nod:

And like that, everything changed. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Super Bowl was in doubt late into the fourth quarter. For the first time in 14 years, an AFC team would win. For the first time in ages, the talk after the game – and during the game! – actually centered on football, not the Bud Bowl.

John Elway’s performance that night proved that such miracles could happen. The next year, Elway returned and his Broncos easily dispatched the Falcons, ridding the world of the AFC Super Bowl curse once and for all.

The following year, the Rams and Titans played another classic Super Bowl and there was a new normal developing. The Super Bowl was becoming a good football game. The pomp and circumstance helped, but people started to feel confident that if the tuned in, they would see a good game.

Since Tampa Bay routed the Oakland, the last 10 games before Super Bowl 48 were in doubt into the fourth quarter – with only the Colts’ win over the Bears featuring any amount of true garbage time.

Since John Elway broke the AFC curse, when a mere 83 million watched his sendoff game, the Super Bowl viewership has skyrocketed a ridiculous 35 percent.

Since the Patriots’ attempted to go for the perfect season, five of the last seven Super Bowl games have come down to the final minute.

Lost in all of the talk about the NFL’s ratings dominance is how extremely lucky and fortunate they have been with games in the Super Bowl – maybe to make up for a lost 1980’s and 1990’s to terrible blowouts.
That is why the Super Bowl set a viewership record this year despite one of the game’s worst games.

The brand had been saved. The brand had been rebuilt. The Super Bowl is no longer pomp and circumstance with football in between.

The Super Bowl is now a football game with a lot of pomp and circumstance around it.

This is a key and important shift that has changed the dynamic of America’s Game. The brand has been rebuilt that people no longer worry about a game that is over by 8pm. They believe the game will be close. They believe they will be entertained for the duration.

That’s why the record viewers and the blowout were so noteworthy.

A Super Bowl blowout is now treated an anomaly, not the norm. 20 years ago, the reverse would’ve been true.

The numbers will be even higher next year. And if Roger Goodell sold his soul for good weather this year – he’ll sell again for a nail-biting finish in Glendale.

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  1. I think it was the Patriots that turned it around. They won 3 good Super Bowls in a row.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. No way. The Broncos had a lot more to overcome. They were 11-13 point underdogs, their QB was thought of as a loser, and they had the weight of the entire AFC on their shoulders. That was the most pivotal win in SB history.

      The teams that the Pats, Colts, and Steelers had in the 00's weren't that great. Sure, their games were competitive, but those teams weren't as good as the Bronco or Seahawk teams that played in Jersey last Sunday (even though Denver didn't play anywhere near like they are capable).


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