Back in the 1980s, it seemed like every Super Bowl was a massive butt-kicking. On Super Bowl Sunday, the one thing you could count on, other than a strange halftime show involving three-dimensional magic and an Elvis impersonator, was an anticlimactic football contest. It was a running joke in American culture that the game was never any good. Two weeks of hype and then… over before you knew it, like a Mike Tyson fight against Michael Spinks.
I personally remember most of the Super Bowls of my youth playing out like the one in 1988 between Washington and Denver, in which the Redskins used a fierce defense and 204 rushing yards from a rookie named Timmy Smith to dominate John Elway and the Broncos, 42-10. (For me, the most entertaining thing about that Sunday was not the game at all, but rather the premiere of The Wonder Years—and my introduction to the prepubescent siren that was Winnie Cooper.)
But sometime in the mid-1990s, the game actually became a nail-biter. Since 1996, 13 of the 22 Super Bowls (nearly 60 percent) have been decided by 10 points or fewer, whereas in the preceding 15 years, just four games were that close (27 percent). And I’m not complaining. I’ll take Giants 17, Patriots 14 over Cowboys 30, Bills 13 any February. But it does make you wonder: Why the hell is that? Why are Super Bowl games now close, competitive, down-to-the-last-snap contests, when they used to be absolute laughers?
Free agency allowed bad teams to get better quickly. And it made it harder for great teams to stay great because their best players could seek better deals from the rest of the league.
To find out, I talked and/or emailed with many people who responded to my cry for help on a website called Help a Reporter Out. (Thanks, HARO!) They offered up many good and thought-provoking reasons.
Of course, some of their hypotheses were a bit crazy. For example, Sean Pate at Gametime, a mobile ticket app, suspects there’s a high-level conspiracy at work. “The Super Bowl has been a thrilling game for most of the last 16 years,” says Pate. “It’s no coincidence that the price of the tickets has skyrocketed during this period, both the face value and secondhand. To keep the value of the event high, perhaps the NFL has ‘arranged’ for a competitive contest to keep those well-heeled fans and advertisers pleased with their investment and coming back.”
Kevin Burke, who does PR for StubHub, echoes Pate’s thoughts, writing: “Maybe higher TV and ad ratings warranted the NFL to demand a better game.” Which just makes me wonder: What is it with ticket guys and conspiracy theories?
My favorite response might be from Michael Bilello, CEO of the marketing agency Centurion Strategies, because it incorporates the military and modern warfare. Bilello, a former US Marine Officer and Iraqi Freedom vet, writes: “Just as intelligence-gathering technology in the hands of battlefield commanders has allowed for pre-operational planning that translates into increased mission effectiveness, NFL coaches are now able to gather, analyze and share ‘film’ like never before. With these technologies, teams have the ability to prepare for every threat opponents showcase before they face it. Good intelligence and preparation can also set the team up to exploit an opponent’s weakness. This is far more effective than deploying scouts and watching VHS.”
In other words, there’s more info out there, less secrecy, and therefore fewer surprises on game day, assuming you do your homework. And we all know these NFL coaches spend approximately 23 hours per day in the film room, so they definitely do their homework. Good intelligence, in essence, narrows the gap.
While I appreciate these theories, none of them get to the real crux of the issue like my next sources.
“My answer is pretty simple,” Mays says. “In 1993, a new era of the NFL was ushered in with the establishment of free agency. A year later the league instituted a hard salary cap. Because of free agency, the talent got more evenly distributed, which led to more parity. And because of the salary cap, no team could just completely stockpile talent anymore. So between those two changes, it ultimately led to more competitive games—and more competitive Super Bowls.”
(Note: This is what he said more or less. I didn’t record this conversation and I was barely awake, even though he was calling at a perfectly reasonable time of the day.)
To give Mays’ reasoning a bit more context, let’s dig deeper into this whole free agency thing. At the insistence of the players union, the NFL started allowing unrestricted free agents in March of 1993. Reggie White, you may remember, was the first big-time player to test free agency. After visiting eight different teams (eight!), the Eagles’ star pass rusher chose the Green Bay Packers. The team jumped from 23rd in total defense to second, and a few years later, they won the Super Bowl. White even set a Super Bowl record with three sacks.