There were 30,000 empty seats at the first Super Bowl.

$100 Million+ Wagered In Las Vegas On Big Game That Had Less-Than-Super Roots

By Bernie Fratto



It’s been over 120 years since German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined his famous phrase; “Out of chaos, comes order.” Clearly, he must have been talking about the National Football League and a particular Sunday that happens only once a year. And as anyone can tell you, it’s become an international event that is beyond super.


In fact, what if I told you during Super Bowl weekend in 2016 approximately 300,000 visitors descended upon Sin City and spent over $124 million while they were here?


Moreover, it was all because of a single football game.


However, it wasn’t always this way; in fact, its origin is somewhat accidental if not unintentional.


The first ever AFL-NFL Championship game was played on Sunday January 15, 1967. The biggest concern was how badly Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers would whip the upstart Kansas City Chiefs. Lombardi had called the AFL a ‘Mickey Mouse League’ and fittingly, the inaugural game was played just down the road from Disneyland at the LA Coliseum.


Tickets were $12 apiece and they ended up giving away hordes of them just to beef up attendance. Unfortunately, even that effort was somewhat fruitless; there were still more than 30,000 empty seats at game time.


The game wasn’t yet called The Super Bowl, in fact that name wouldn’t appear anywhere until Super Bowl IV. For the record, 1970 was the first time they actually printed the words ‘Super Bowl’ on the game tickets.


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But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s take a trip down memory lane, all the way back to the early 1960s.


The year was 1964 and a war was raging between the AFL and NFL. The newer, sleeker AFL was bucking the long established stodgy NFL and in their quest for respect, they engaged in a bidding war for talent.


The war had been intense for the better part of four years, but it became more extreme when the AFL scored a victory as a court issued a ruling in favor of the Houston Oilers over the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. This was a case that required a legally binding final decision after both clubs had signed the highly touted Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy winner from LSU.


The AFL prevailed.


The stakes continued to elevate for college talent and sky-high bonuses became reality when the AFL’s New York Jets signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to a $400,000 contract in 1965.


Not to be outdone, the Atlanta Falcons doled out $600,000 to Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis and the Green Bay Packers ponied up $711,000 to Texas Tech running back Donny Anderson.


But the straw that broke the camel’s back happened when Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak signed with the New York Giants after playing out his option with the Buffalo Bills in 1965. The “no-tampering” code had officially been violated and the clash finally reached a pinnacle.


On April 7, 1966 AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, who had done his best to act as a peacemaker, resigned. Enter the ultimate Maverick and GM of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis. He assumed the reigns as commissioner of the AFL and his hawkish presence coupled with a clever game plan, would ultimately create history.


Al Davis organized an AFL War Chest and urged owners to start collaborating with the stated intent of raiding NFL stars. The NFL had always bragged of its superiority largely due to the number of star quarterbacks the league boasted, and Davis wanted a full-scale effort to sign those quarterbacks for the AFL.


True to form, his Raiders pilfered QB Roman Gabriel from the LA Rams, and the Houston Oilers got San Francisco 49er QB John Brodie to agree to a 5-year deal. Within days, eight NFL quarterbacks began dickering with the AFL to see what they could get.


By early June 1966, the NFL relented. Less than two months after he became commissioner, Al Davis got what he really wanted… a merger deal between the AFL and the NFL.


Although the actual merger wouldn’t consummate until 1971, there were many implementations that took place right away. A common draft was established in 1967; inter-league preseason play began that fall, and three years later, regular season contests combining the leagues, commenced.


But, most importantly, the immediate establishment of a championship game between the AFL and NFL was formed. It would be called the AFL-NFL Championship game.


The AFL-NFL Championship had a drab ring to it, and there is much conjecture as to how the actual name ‘Super Bowl’ was born. One popular story has to do with a high-level executive scratching his head at home one weekend while trying to come up with a catchy title, when he noticed his son bouncing a ‘Super Ball,’ a famous toy from the 60s. Others dismiss this story as apocryphal.


Common belief is that an un-named sportswriter coined the moniker one day out of nowhere and it stuck.


Fortunately for professional football and its legion of fans, this is one story that has a very happy ending.  Roman Gabriel never went to the Raiders. John Brodie never left the 49ers, but he did manage to procure a $1,000,000 dollar settlement. Meanwhile, Al Davis resigned as commissioner of the AFL 30 days after the merger.


And for the rest of us, the Super Bowl has become a happy event in almost every way. The parties, the stories, the office pools and the celebrations have combined to make Super Bowl Sunday a virtual National Holiday.


And of course there’s the game itself.


Ah, the circle of life. Al Davis, rest his soul. It’s fair to say none of this happens without his shrewd intervention.


And the Las Vegas Raiders?


Without Al’s son Mark, it’s fair to say Las Vegas never becomes home to one of the most storied franchises in the history of the NFL. And if past is prologue, once the $1.9 billion stadium project opens in 2020, it’s fairly certain one of those Super Bowl Games will be played right here, over on the corner of Dean Martin Boulevard and Russell Road on the west side of I-15.

New Raiders stadium in Las Vegas.


Oh, by the way, that $124 million dollar figure I mentioned earlier? Approximately $120 million of it represents the amount that was legally wagered on the game itself, right here in Las Vegas.


Nietzsche was right. For one Sunday every year, The Super Bowl has become the order of the day.


Alan Snel

Alan Snel brings decades of sports-business reporting experience to Snel covered the business side of sports for the South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune and Las Vegas Review-Journal. As a city hall beat reporter, Snel also covered stadium deals in Denver and Seattle. In 2000, Snel launched a sport-business website for called After reporting sports-business for the RJ, Snel wrote hard-hitting stories on the Raiders stadium for the Desert Companion magazine in Las Vegas and The Nevada Independent. Snel is also one of the top bicycle advocates in the country.

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