Why you should care
Because we’re knee-deep in histories we’re only half aware of.
On Jan. 26, 1997, the Green Bay Packers were beating the slop out of the New England Patriots— yes, there was a time when that was possible — and the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans was alight with the screams of more than 70,000 American football obsessives, and millions more on TV. The final score was 35-21. James Brown and the Blues Brothers were the halftime entertainment.
And, oh, yeah, my first daughter was being born.
Everyone in the hospital was dialed in. To the game. Eerie quiet amid the bustle, and a strange and pervasive lack of focus on much of anything else. It was like hanging out with people on LSD— great for them, kind of dull for you. Or me, in this instance, as I had much more pressing matters on my hands.
But January and the Super Bowl had skipped hand in hand through the end of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s impeachment, an attempted assassination of a president …
So it went that a tradition that had started back in 1967, the Super Bowl, left its mark on the month of January, punctuation for whatever kind of cold-misery, post-holiday hangover anyone spectator-sport-inclined was having. It also gave the more degenerate fans some breathing room to get their acts together by Valentine’s Day, which has been observed for various reasons since the year 496.
But January and the Super Bowl, the grandest of all football spectacles, had skipped hand in hand through the end of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s impeachment, an attempted assassination of a president — Reagan in this instance — and various and sundry normally earth-shattering events with nary a ripple. And it was not just a hide-born resistance to change for the sake of resisting change that drove this.
“One of the big questions in moving dates of an event as massive as this is the schedule. What does the network involved have on the schedule that will now need to be moved?” offers Nick Davis, executive producer at Fox Sports West. Back when networks’ sweeps months — the ratings taken from September, November, February and May — were used to set ad rates for the following year, “a network had to think about what show(s) would be displaced by the game on Sunday and ancillary programming on Friday and Saturday.”
But with TV series now debuting year-round, people cutting their cable and multiple alternatives to the traditional Big Three of yore, date switches are no longer revenue destroyers. And commerce actually, really, needs change to feed our lust for the new. But still there’s something wonderfully normalizing about the regular and routine, something we can all calmly count on, like the never-moving Fourth of July or the ever-the-same New Year’s Eve. So, the game had stayed put. In January.
Possibly because “people into football are usually also into the historical tradition of football,” says Steve Ballinger, former college offensive lineman. “Numbers, places, teams, times, scores — all of it.”
But all of it finally shifted into some sort of reflective gear right after the fall of 2001. Specifically after Sept. 11, 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers forced many in the West to take a knee and reevaluate what exactly had just happened and what was going to happen next. Games were delayed while the U.S. took stock, and, in 2002, again at the Louisiana Superdome, Super Bowl XXXVI was the first Super Bowl to happen outside the month of January. And on Feb. 3, 2002, the New England Pats won their first Super Bowl.
During the halftime show, the first post-9/11 tragedy, the band U2 played a tribute to the attack’s victims. Sports Illustrated rated it the best halftime gig ever, and though 2003’s Super Bowl was played in January — followed by riots that had nothing to do with the date change — in 2004 it returned to February, where it’s been ever since. Leaving you plenty of time to pull it together by Valentine’s Day.
And my now 20-year-old daughter? Not any kind of football fan at all.