Here’s how big the Super Bowl is: Over the past year the Stanley Cup Finals reached  7.6 million viewers, the World Series peaked at 17.2 million viewers, the NBA Finals hit 23.2 million viewers, the college football national title game attracted 25.7 million viewers and the NCAA men’s basketball final drew 28.3 million viewers.

All these epic sporting events combined add up to 102 million viewers… or more than 12 million less than the record 114.4 million Americans who watched the 2015 Super Bowl.

This data is particularly baffling when you consider how the U.S. TV audience has splintered over the years. It’s easy to rack up ratings when you’re competing with maybe two channels and static, which helped Elvis Presley go on Ed Sullivan in 1956 and command a mind-blowing 82.6 percent of viewers (an estimated 54 million people).

As the number of TV sets continued to grow and the entertainment options remained fairly limited, viewership became truly massive, culminating with 1983’s M*A*S*H finale and its 105.9 million viewers.

Then we got cable, DVDs, streaming and so on. Now the audience is fragmented enough that when Friends went off the air in 2004, a meager 52.5 million watched Chandler spew zingers for the last time while tens of millions found other stuff to do.

Yet everyone continues to tune in for the Super Bowl, which has never had fewer than 36 million American viewers or commanded less than 61 percent of the TV sets on at that time.

How the hell did this happen? Here’s a look at the key moments leading to the stranglehold that the Super Bowl now has on our nation’s psyche/eyeballs.

1920: The President and a Player. When the American Professional Football Association (soon to be National Football League) formed in 1920, they emphasized their connection with the world’s greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe, so heavily they named him their first president… while he was still playing. Thorpe’s achievements included winning the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, leading a barnstorming basketball team and batting .327 in 1919, his final season in the majors. Oh, and he played football: he was a two-time All-American at Carlisle Indian School as a halfback, defender, punter, and place-kicker. (Other than that, he was useless.) Thorpe played eight pro seasons, earning induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and inclusion on the All-1920s team. More importantly, he brought eyes to the game in its early days.

1925: Get the Ghost. Thorpe was 33 when he joined the NFL. Red Grange came straight out of the University of Illinois. The Galloping Ghost was already a legend for having run for four touchdowns and 262 yards against Michigan in the game’s first 12 minutes when he signed with the Chicago Bears. He promptly went on a nationwide barnstorming tour, packing 19 games into 67 days, with some drawing up to 65,000 fans. That model has served the NFL ever since: watch ’em become stars in college, rake in the loot when they go pro.

1939: On the Television. October 22, 1939. That’s when the NFL first sniffed the billions of dollars to come. Yes, they were being watched by upwards of 500 homes on New York’s experimental station W2XBS! Plus more at the RCA Pavilion at the World’s Fair! OK, so there was work to be done, but this is the moment football found the medium that would make it bigger than baseball.

1951: See the Championship. The DuMont network broadcast the NFL title game coast to coast for the first time. While DuMont itself struggled and ceased to exist by 1956, the games themselves proved popular enough that…

1955: A Big Fish Bites. NBC took over the NFL broadcasts, giving pro football a home base on a major network. This ensures people are watching when the NFL has…

1958: “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” No matter how badly played a game may be, it holds your attention if it’s close. And it gets no closer than this, as QB Johnny Unitas marched his Baltimore Colts to a tying field goal with seconds to go, then a title-winning touchdown in overtime to beat the New York Giants in a matchup absolutely littered with future Hall of Famers. (The Giants boasted the most overqualified coordinators in sports history, with Vince Lombardi on offense and Tom Landry on D.) Some 45 million people watched, proof that professional football could put up Elvis-esque numbers.

1959: The AFL Arrives. The NFL has occasionally faced competition and it’s rarely gone well for the new guys. (Ask He Hate Me and his XFL pals.) The American Football League, however, proved a worthy rival, as its initial teams were the Boston Patriots (now the New England Pats), the Buffalo Bills, the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs), the Denver Broncos, the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans), the Los Angeles Chargers (now the San Diego Chargers), the New York Titans (now Jets), and the Oakland Raiders. With two successful leagues, a matchup was needed to determine which truly produced the best team. Enter…

1967: A Double Dose of Super Bowl. The first Super Bowl—known going in as the “First World Championship Game AFL vs. NFL”—is unique as the only title game broadcast on two networks, since NBC held AFL rights and CBS had NFL rights and neither wanted to give. The result: a pair of networks competing to see who could get more viewers. CBS won the battle 26.8 to 24.4 million, and football itself won the war, with 51 million-plus watching as former Giants coordinator Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers claimed the title. To put the viewership in perspective: Bonanza was the number one series of the 1966-67 season, drawing an estimated audience of just over 16 million.

1972: How About Them Cowboys? The Cowboys have long presented themselves as America’s Team—and damned if the Super Bowl ratings don’t back it up. Dallas has won five Super Bowls… with four of them watched by at least 10 million people more than watched the previous year, starting when that other Giant coordinator Tom Landry coached them to the 1972 Super Bowl title. (The only championship without a massive spike occurred when they repeated in 1993.) Understand: The NFL is massively popular whoever plays, but to this day getting the Cowboys involved is a fine way to keep the ad rates insane.

1980: Catching Commercials. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene fully deserved his “Mean” nickname. (Just read this account of playing against him, including Joe doing something very unpleasant to future Hall of Famer Jim Otto’s groin.) But you wouldn’t have known it from his legendary “Hey, Kid, Catch” Coca-Cola ad, one of the first to take full advantage of the exposure that comes with a Super Bowl. Recently Greene and the “kid” reflected on the filming, which apparently required Greene to drink 18 bottles of Coke. (Because the only thing better than Mean Joe Greene is Mean Joe Greene whacked out of his mind on caffeine.)

1986: Bet on the Fridge. The Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle over the New England Patriots was never in doubt—they won 46-10—but an important question lingered through the third quarter: Would 325-pound defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry score a touchdown? The answer was yes, earning gamblers up to a 75 to 1 payout and ushering in the golden age of prop bets, as wagers went way beyond the final score. (If you have a strong feeling about whether Peyton Manning will cry at some point, you can get good action on that.) It transformed us into what we are today: a nation that bets an estimated $4.2 billion on the game, much of it illegally. (Depressing additional trivia: Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton was denied the chance to score the only Super Bowl TD of his career by the Fridge’s run; it bothered him until his death at 46 in 1999, and then-Bears coach Mike Ditka has called not giving “Sweetness” the ball “the only thing that ever came back to haunt me”—and he once posed for this.)

1989: Bud Bowl Begins. Budweiser bottles vs. Bud Light bottles. Seven more installments followed, as millions eagerly watched commercials so they’d know if one product beat a slightly different product. It’s surely no coincidence that by 1991 communist governments were collapsing all over Europe and that today a 30-second national Super Bowl ad goes for $5 million.

1993: Halftime “Thriller.” For decades, the Super Bowl halftime show existed primarily as a chance to use the bathroom without missing anything. Themes included “A Salute to the Big Band Era”, “KaleidoSUPERscope”, and the magic of Elvis Presto, which featured him performing the world’s largest musical card trick. (Which is somehow worse than it sounds.) Even ones featuring genuine talent got weird: Ella Fitzgerald was one of the great vocalists ever… which is why they made her share the stage with Carol Channing, trumpeter Al Hirt and the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Team in 1972. Then Michael arrived, with historically massive albums behind him and, equally importantly, still a few hits to come. Suddenly to take the stage at the Super Bowl, you needed to have achieved at least Bruno Mars status.

2004: The Wardrobe Malfunction. Janet Jackson. Justin Timberlake. A boob. Super Bowl XXXVIII was a classic, with the Patriots nipping the Panthers 32-29, but it could not compete with Nipplegate, as Michael’s kid sister showed that Super Bowl participants could make headlines without even playing in the game.

2011: Passing M*A*S*H. At last football did what the Friends finale could not. Recognizing that fans like to see QBs work their magic, the NFL has repeatedly added rules to protect/assist them, with at least five between 1993 and 2007. It paid off here, with star QBs Peyton Manning and Drew Brees meeting in an insanely anticipated matchup. (Their teams, the Colts and Saints, also attended.) The Super Bowl cracked the 100-million-Americans mark for the first time, with 106.5 million watching. Indeed, every Super Bowl since this one has also topped M*A*S*H’s record, an achievement equal parts profitable for the NFL and heartbreaking for Alan Alda.