The evolution of an extravaganza

Updated: January 29, 2007, 5:25 PM ET
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

When the artist formerly (and currently) known as Prince appears at the game formerly known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, one thing is sure: The halftime show will bear about as much resemblance to that of the first Super Bowl in Miami, 39 years ago, as Tony Dungy does to Vince Lombardi.

Prince
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonPrince, winner of six Grammy Awards and nominated for five more this year, will headline the Super Bowl halftime entertainment Sunday in Miami.
In a game that still officially carried the above title in 1968 and did not yet bear roman numerals, the Grambling State University band provided the halftime entertainment AND performed the national anthem. The NFL's idea of special effects then was the following pre-game touches: The Grambling State band marched onto the field through a 30-yard-long cornucopia, and two giant figures in Green Bay and Oakland uniforms conducted a stare down. The actual Packers players proceeded to stomp the Raiders 33-14, in what would eventually be known as Super Bowl II.

It was no less innocent at the following year's Super Bowl in Miami, when Anita Bryant sang the national anthem, the Apollo 8 astronauts led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Florida A&M band handled halftime -- and, oh yes, Joe Namath's New York Jets shocked the world by defeating the Baltimore Colts 16-7.

We've come a long way, baby -- from marching bands to Rolling Stones, from squeaky-clean heroes to wardrobe malfunctions, from Anita Bryant's rendition of The Star Spangled Banner to Mary J. Blige's interpretation of America the Beautiful. So…how on God's green turf did we get from there to here?

In part it's simply a reflection, for better or worse, on our culture. But it also reflects the transformation of the event: from being merely pro football's biggest game to being the world's biggest media platform. The NFL made it so by turning the Super Bowl into an entertainment extravaganza, reeling in an audience that extended beyond football fans and employing a philosophy that would have pleased P.T. Barnum and puzzled George Halas. Nothing succeeds like excess.

It wasn't always thus. Jim Steeg, who orchestrated Super Bowls for 26 years, recalls his daffy first one in 1979 -- Super Bowl XIII in Miami. The halftime-show, "Caribbean Carnival," called for a blue tarp to be spread across the field, with each island nation painted on it. A float, decked out as a boat, was to roll around to the islands, where musicians would play at each stop. But the Haitian musicians were no-shows, and the blue tarp snagged on one of the goal posts as it was rolled out. The float's engine died "somewhere around Puerto Rico," recalls Steeg, who had to help push it off the field.

It was an inauspicious beginning for Steeg, who was recruited by then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the job and at first blush seemed a curious choice -- a former business manager/controller for the Miami Dolphins. But beneath that beancounter exterior lurked an impresario. Steeg would be instrumental in the league's leaving its "Caribbean Carnival" days far behind.

Diana Ross
AP Photo/Amy SancettaDiana Ross performs at the halftime show during Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Ariz., on Jan. 28, 1996. She had been one of Jim Steeg's first major headliners, singing the national anthem for Super Bowl XVI in January 1982.
His first target in raising the Super Bowl's pizzazz level was the national anthem. It was usually consigned to collegiate chorales or "B" list crooners, so Steeg walked into Rozelle's office in 1981 with a different notion. "I'd like to try for Diana Ross," he said. "Go ahead kid," Rozelle said, "but you've got no shot." Steeg landed her and learned he was on to something. An astute entertainer could look beyond this gig's low fee -- zero, to this day -- and see a huge payoff in the vast TV audience. This was a hotter property than the NFL then knew.

Steeg had to wait a while before Rozelle was ready to embrace bigger changes -- like deep-sixing Up With People, a onetime Super Bowl staple. Carrie Rozelle, the commissioner's wife, loved the clean-cut, peppy troupe, which did four halftime shows from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. The commissioner, however, eventually overdosed on the saccharine. The day after Super Bowl XX in 1986, he began a staff meeting by declaring, "There are three words that I don't ever want to hear again: Up With People."

The NFL started turning to slick outside producers like Radio City Music Hall, whose 1988 halftime was something of a template for the celebrity-driven, wow-factor shows to come. It was called "Something Grand," with Chubby Checker twisting, the Rockettes kicking and 88 white grand pianos rimming the field.

The Super Bowl that ratcheted up the star-power quotient came in 1993. The year before, Fox had counter-programmed against the halftime show, with a much-hyped live episode of its then-popular series "In Living Color." (This was also the year before Fox outbid CBS to become an NFL broadcaster.) The gambit was one part clever and one part luck. The game was a dud, with the Redskins up 17-0 at the half and en route to a 37-24 win against the Bills. But it worked. Fox siphoned off millions of viewers, and this became the second-lowest rated Super Bowl since 1971, with an audience of 120 million.

The NFL, determined to ambush-proof itself, decided to take its game to a new level. "We had Gloria Estefan (in 1992)," says Steeg, "but the show was still about the spectacle more than the name." Indeed, the centerpiece of that "Winter Magic" themed show -- the site being Minneapolis -- was Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano skating around on a rink, with four 30-foot inflatable snowmen looming over them and machine-made fog surrounding them.

Michael Jackson
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyMichael Jackson enthralled a global audience with his "Heal the World" halftime show at Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 31, 1993.
Strongly encouraged by NBC's Dick Ebersol, whose network had the 1993 game, the NFL approached Michael Jackson, then still a mega-star. Jackson's people had to be sold on the Super Bowl. They didn't know a square-out from a moonwalk. But they knew a lot about exposure (in the pre-Neverland sense, you understand) and they responded to a key figure: 160. That was the number of countries in which the game would be televised, some of which Jackson hoped to visit on an upcoming world tour.

That whole Super Sunday was an object lesson in the pluses and perils of the superstar-driven approach. Jackson's "Heal The World" halftime show held the TV audience all right, even though Dallas was stomping Buffalo 28-10, en route to a final score of 52-17. Super Bowl XXVII drew 133.4 million viewers, still one of the 10 most watched TV programs of all time.

But Jackson also sent NFL and NBC officials into conniptions. As rehearsed, Jackson was to slowly rise from beneath the stage on a platform, briefly hold a pose, then swing into his act. He instead froze for one minute and 10 seconds -- out of a 12-minute show -- before starting a plea for world peace and allowing Steeg to exhale. Backed by a cast of 3,500 children and a stadium-wide card show, Jackson put on a boffo show for his global audience.

Steed had barely recovered, at that point, from Garth Brooks' star-spangled histrionics. As a condition of singing the national anthem, the country star required that NBC run his latest music video on its pre-game show. The network agreed, but Brooks missed the producers' deadline for delivering the tape. Told an hour before game time that NBC wasn't going to run it, Brooks declared he wasn't going to sing. Climbing into his limo to leave, Brooks was intercepted by an NFL official with word that NBC had relented.

(Just to complete the holy trinity of celebrity weirdness at Super Bowl XXVII, O.J. Simpson did the coin toss.)

The down side of Michael Jackson, other than the quirk factor, was his intimidation after-effect. "For a while, some other performers were afraid to follow Michael," says Steeg. He thought he had Brooks lined up one year, for instance, and Mister Finicky Black Hat backed out.

It is an intimidating platform, for the same reason it's a grand one -- a worldwide audience today of 140 million people. Performers who are into football have a pretty good idea what they're getting into. Three-time Super Bowl performer Jon Bon Jovi, for instance, co-owns the Philadelphia Soul Arena Football League team and is friends with Bill Belichick. But, says Steeg, "The entertainer who's not into sports doesn't understand what they're about to do."

That's why the Super Bowl's national anthem singers have long pre-recorded their renditions. Jittery performers get the option of going live or Memorex. Kathie Lee Gifford, who lip-synced the anthem for Super Bowl XXIX, once recalled the advice she received from Barry Manilow (anthem crooner for Super Bowl XVII): "No matter what, do not look up at the scoreboard telling you how many billions of people are watching the broadcast."

Bono
AP Photo/Amy SancettaU2, led by singer Bono, orchestrated one of the most memorable halftime shows. They performed at Super Bowl XXXVI at the Superdome in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2002, the first post-9/11 Super Bowl.
Once Jackson raised the bar for Super Bowl celebrity and pageantry, the league frenetically tried to outdo itself each year in star-power and wow-factor. It didn't stop other networks from bold counter-programming gambits. After NBC dropped out of NFL coverage -- and before it resumed this season -- the network wasn't above running a special Playboy playmate edition of Fear Factor against Super Bowl halftime.

The halftime shows became technically awesome but culturally cumbersome theater -- an effort to hit every TV audience demographic and musical taste in a 12-minute show. Consider halftime at Super Bowl XXIX in Miami (in 1995), played out to an odd Indiana Jones motif and featuring a still odder mix of Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and the Miami Sound Machine -- plus skydivers and pyrotechnics. It was like a revival of Ed Sullivan -- only on steroids and amphetamines.

And it was driven largely by the networks' need to recoup sharply escalating NFL broadcast rights. The league doubled the cost of those rights in 1993, to $4.38 billion. In 1998, it commanded an eight-year $18.1 billion broadcast deal. Each network got the Super Bowl every three years. Each counted on mega-viewership from those games, so as to command mega-fees for ads. The price for 30-second ad spots passed $1 million in the mid-1990s and has now reached $2.5 million. The Super Bowl didn't become the ultimate in appointment TV by limiting its appeal to football junkies. It did so by attracting casual fans and women and selling the sideshow sizzle.

Or, for that matter, the post-game sizzle. David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports, felt that a flashy on-field presentation of the Vince Lombardi trophy would make better TV than the clammy confines of the winners' locker room. So, starting in 1996, that's what the NFL began doing. It's just TV Programming 101: Whatever it takes to keep viewers watching right into the network's hyped 10 p.m. program.

The NFL even tried packing yet one more musical act into the evening, between game's end and trophy's presentation. But it didn't really work. After Bon Jovi's post-game gig at Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003, this approach was abandoned. The pre-game music, on the other hand, continues to grow, now reaching halftime-sized proportions. These opening acts fulfill their function of sprinkling that much more stardust around the Super Bowl.

The pre-game show broke through on TV the same year it broke all records for extravaganza: 2002, at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. This was the first post-9/11 Super Bowl and it was wrapped spectacularly in the flag. The NFL and Fox, the game's broadcaster, were determined to fashion a somber salute and an unparalleled spectacular. It was during a November visit to New Orleans by league and network brass to check Superdome security that everyone agreed: The original top-billed entertainers -- Janet Jackson for halftime and the BeeGees for pre-game -- no longer cut it.

Recalls Fox's David Hill, "It was 'OK, all the plans are out the window; we've got to start over.' We knew we had to come up with something that would fit the mood of the country."

Hill and Steeg talked bands and quickly decided on their No. 1 pick: U2. Bono had the gravitas and global appeal to pull it off. The halftime show, culminating with Bono singing "Where The Streets Have No Name" and the names of 9/11 victims scrolling on a giant screen, is often regarded as the Super Bowl's most memorable. It was also a distinct exception among the new-millennium Super Bowls. More than ever, the halftime show was a frenetic mish-mash of acts in service of a larger corporate agenda.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake
AP Photo/David PhillipThe "wardrobe malfunction" performed by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl XXXVIII has led networks to impose broadcast delays on entertainment.
"It was still in the league's hands until the early 2000s," says Steeg, who left as Super Bowl honcho in 2005 and is now executive vice president and chief operating officer of the San Diego Chargers. "Then the networks became part of bigger companies with all those other tentacles."

Super Bowl XXXIV was ABC's first Super Bowl since being acquired by Disney. The new parent company produced the halftime show in Atlanta, a goofy mix of Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Toni Braxton and scads of oversized puppets. The show also served to promote Walt Disney World's year-long millennium celebration.

In 2001, Super Bowl XXXV was broadcast by CBS, which had been absorbed into Viacom. Corporate sister MTV produced the halftime show, featuring Aerosmith, 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly. The cable network soon had the mini-concert out on cassette.

The Janet Jackson fiasco at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was, in retrospect, an accident waiting to happen. It was another MTV production, and the infamous story hardly bares repeating. Suffice it to say, the league still doesn't buy the "wardrobe malfunction" line issued by Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Says NFL executive vice president Joe Browne: "MTV had its own agenda."

The FCC hit CBS with a $550,000 fine, after being flooded with more than 500,000 complaints. The NFL is still paying the price for a lesser-known MTV act that night. MTV ran a pre-game video called "The March To Freedom," a montage of images that included a protester facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square. This was seen on the Super Bowl broadcast into China and touched off another sort of protest -- from the Chinese government, which has long barred pictures of that uprising. The NFL was blindsided by that one, too. It's still dealing with the repercussions, as it tries to establish itself in China.

In the past three years, the league has taken back tighter control of Super Bowl entertainment. It is trying to make safer choices of performers and get commitments from them to keep it clean. It has pushed the networks to put their Super Bowl broadcasts on a five-second delay. Fox refused in 2005; ABC acceded in 2006. This year, CBS will do the game live, but put a 7-second delay on the entertainment.

Mick Jagger
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMick Jagger performed with the Rolling Stones at halftime of last year's Super Bowl after reaching a compromise with ABC.
But there's no going back to Anita Bryant. In the popular culture of 2007, even mainstream acts are potentially edgy. When the league booked the Rolling Stones for last year's Super Bowl halftime, the parties agreed on the group's songs. Then the band came rolling into Detroit wishing to change to a bit more risqué set, according to a league source. A multi-day standoff ensued, according to this source, with the NFL prepared to draft Stevie Wonder from the pre-game show to replace the Stones.

A compromise finally enabled Mick Jagger to strut his halftime stuff. The Stones did their set, but ABC cut the sound for the offending words in "Start Me Up" and "Rough Justice."

The league's fervent hope for Sunday is that Prince plays under control at halftime and Cirque du Soleil has no acrobatic malfunctions in the pre-game. That has become the central conundrum of the Super Bowl: the greater the extravaganza, the greater the risk.

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."