By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Super Bowl has grown from a game with humble roots played in front of thousands of empty seats into the biggest single sporting event in the United States and a glitzy extravaganza seen in nearly 200 countries and territories in 33 languages.
"If you're driving in Montana on the backroads and you see these one-story motels where there's eight or 10 units, that was the first Super Bowl," former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt told Reuters.
"Super Bowl 45 is the Sears Tower and still growing."
The Super Bowl began in 1967 as the result of a merger between the well-established National Football League and its upstart rival, the American Football League.
The Super Bowl name, however, was not used until the third year of the series.
Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, one of the AFL's founders, saw his daughter playing with a ball and after he asked her what she called it, she replied, "It's a Super Ball."
Hunt decided that pro football's Championship Game should be re-named the Super Bowl, the moniker winning out over then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle's suggestion of The Big One.
The Green Bay Packers whipped the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in the first Super Bowl (named retroactively), played on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before 61,946 fans.
Tickets were $6, $10 and $12 and despite the cheap prices, there were more than 30,000 empty seats. In those days, college football was more of an attraction.
"USC (Southern California) played Oregon State earlier that year and Oregon State was not very good at the time," recalled Brandt, in the Cowboys' front office 1960 to 1989, in a telephone interview.
"And they had a bigger crowd for that than we did for the Championship Game."
Since CBS owned the NFL television rights and NBC the AFL rights, they both decided to broadcast the game. This year, stations from 12 countries will broadcast the game on-site in languages including Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Russian.
The halftime entertainment shows are also unrecognizable from the early editions. The Rolling Stones, The Who and Bruce Springsteen have all appeared and this year's feature act is the Black Eyed Peas. It's a far cry from the first Super Bowl when the Grambling State University marching band, Al Hirt, and the Anaheim High School Drill Team entertained the crowd.
Interest in the Super Bowl began to soar in 1969 when the New York Jets and their flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath stunned the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in one of the game's greatest upsets.
It showed fans that the 10-year-old AFL, whose Oakland Raiders were spanked by the Packers 33-14 in the second Super Bowl, had come of age and could complete against the NFL.
"That made the Super Bowl because it brought attention to the game," said Brandt. "They were a 19-point underdog. It was remarkable."
In 1971, the league changed the AFL and the NFL to the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference, both playing under the NFL umbrella.
Brandt believes football's surging popularity has fueled today's passion for the Super Bowl.
"I don't think interest in the World Series has escalated," said Brandt, who has missed only two of the 44 Super Bowls.
"In the NBA, if you asked 100 people, very few would be able to tell you who played last year even though it was two teams with monumental histories (Lakers-Celtics).
"But with football, people can't get enough. Here in Dallas the newspapers have had special editions about the Super Bowl since the summer."
Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial holiday in the United States, with so many parties being held it is the second-biggest day for food consumption after Thanksgiving.
Tickets for this year's game on February 6 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are as high as $1,200.
Perhaps the best indicator to the still-burgeoning popularity of football is that fact that 5,000 people paid $200 each to watch the game on a jumbo screen outside Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the Super Bowl is being played.
Television ads are estimated to cost $2.8 million to $3 million for 30-second spots, a far cry from the $40,000 for the Packers-Chiefs game in 1967.
"All of the spots were sold out for this year's Super Bowl in October and that's in an economy that is still struggling," said Brandt, now an analyst with NFL.com.
"This game has come a long way."
(Editing by Julian Linden)