Lamar Hunt, America’s super duper Sixties’ serial sports franchiser and league founder, used his daddy’s oil fortune to launch the American Football League, World Championship Tennis, the North American Soccer League, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Chicago Bulls, while naming football’s do-or-die World Series after his kids’ incredibly-bouncy Superball.
In winning their record-breaking tenth American Football Conference Championship Game this January, the New England Patriots won yet another Lamar Hunt Trophy. Sadly, few remember Hunt – or hail him for America’s football obsession, and for the estimated 4.9 billion potato chips, 1.3 billion chicken wings, and 1.2 billion beer bottles we will consume on Super Bowl Sunday.
Born in 1932, Lamar was the tenth child of Haroldson Lafayette Hunt (1889-1974), the Illinois-born Arkansas gambler who used his poker winnings to buy the East Texas Oil Fields, and become a super-rich, cartoonish Texas tycoon. Living in a super-sized Mount Vernon knockoff, H.L. Hunt fathered fifteen children with three overlapping wives. His roguish hypocrisy fed rumors that he inspired the J.R. Ewing character on TV’s Dallas¸ while his kooky conservatism fed darker whisperings that he bankrolled President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
Lamar was one Hunt who avoided the oil business, forsaking his training as a geologist. He also was the decidedly junior partner when his brothers Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt attempted to corner the silver market in the 1970s. The 1980 drop in silver reduced seven billion dollars’ worth of holdings into a $1.7 billion loss and years of legal headaches, with Lamar found minimally culpable.
Nicknamed “Games” because he improvised family athletic contests, Hunt started shopping for a sports team in 1959. Americans were just starting to spend themselves silly on leisure. Still, no one imagined today’s $60-billion-plus sports market.
With the arrogance of a 27-year-old oil prince, when the National Football League owners rejected him, Hunt started his own league. With the vision of a profit-making prophet, he figured that if baseball had an AL and NL, the NFL could use an AFL. Seven other charter members of what they called “the foolish club” launched American Football League franchises for $25,000 a piece. In 1963, Hunt’s Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs, worth $2.1 billion today.
Back then, no sport could compete with baseball as the national pastime – certainly not football. Baseball celebrated American individualism – football’s helmets, shoulder pads, and mob of eleven super-sized masked muscle men obscured singular heroics. Baseball evoked green pastures and open spaces – football was enclosed, played on a grid in concrete stadiums. Baseball was timeless, as leisurely as sipping an ice-cold Coke on a hot afternoon – football was rushed, like chugging beer after beer with the clock ticking down to last call.
But football had one, incredible, advantage. Baseball dazzled radio listeners but bored television viewers. Football was made for TV: action-packed, visually dramatic, and as choreographed as a 30-minute sitcom or a 60-minute drama, with sufficient commercial time built-in for the owners to make big money. As television conquered America, as images squashed ideas, as Americans became addicted to the rush-rush, wham-bang, post-1950s world, Sundays became the day Americans worshipped in the church of football.
Many Hunt innovations helped. Emblazoning names on the back of uniforms made players celebrities. Playing one big Thanksgiving game made passing and tackling as central to that all-American holiday as carving turkey and eating stuffing. Recruiting more African-American players than the NFL made the football field look more like America. Holding the Super Bowl at a neutral site attracted a nationwide television audience more committed to the spectacle than any particular team. And adding the two-point conversion made the game more exciting.
Beyond his football fanaticism, “Games” Hunt modernized American sports. He helped introduce Americans to professional tennis and soccer, earning a place in both of those sports’ halls of fame too. He invested in pro basketball with the Chicago Bulls and minor league baseball with the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs. He built the $3 million, 136,000-square-foot Bronco Bowl in 1961 as teen heaven in Dallas, for bowling, billiards, archery, pinball, mini-golf, slot car racing and – most famously – concerts. He also jumped on the theme park bandwagon with Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, at the time, the world’s largest water park.
Still, Hunt was most famous for founding the AFC and his beloved Kansas City Chiefs – who lost the first A.F.L.-N.F.L. World Championship Game to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, 35 to 10. A record-breaking TV audience at the time of 75 million viewers anticipated the future. Along the way, Hunt named the game that attracts more American viewers than the presidential debates.
Remarkably, within six years, the arrogant commissioner of the NFL, which was founded in 1920, Pete Rozelle, and Hunt were negotiating a AFL-NFL merger – teams in both leagues were bankrupting themselves trying to outbid one another for star players. Rozelle and Hunt agreed that the victors in the renamed American Football Conference and National Football Conference would play each other. While brainstorming, Hunt recalled, “the words flowed something like this: ‘No, not those games — the one I mean is the final game. You know, the Super Bowl.’” He believed “it probably registered in my head because my daughter, Sharron, and my son Lamar Jr. had a children’s toy called a Super Ball, and I probably interchanged the phonetics of ‘bowl’ and ‘ball.’”
On July 18, 1966, the Kansas City Star quoted Hunt saying “the Super Bowl — that's my term for the championship game between the two leagues.” A week later, on July 25, 1966, Hunt wrote to Rozelle, “I have kiddingly called it the 'Super Bowl,' which obviously can be improved upon.” Later on, Hunt proposed adding the Roman Numerals to give the games “more dignity.” After Super Bowl V, this pretentious habit took hold.
The author Henry D. Fetter dissents, noting that “On June 10 New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley looked ahead to ‘a new superduper football game for what amounts to the championship of the world.’ By January 15, 1967, the very first Super Sunday, even as Hunt and Rozelle hunted for another term, sportswriters had adopted the title. The New York Times proclaimed: “The Super Bowl: Football's Day of Decision Stirs Nation."
Super-duper is not super. Fetter shows the addiction to hype in the age when “cool” and “groovy” were conquering the English language too. Hunt’s July, 1966 statements offer convincing proof that the visionary who earned the credit deserves it too.
“I guess I had sort of a show business bug in my mind,” Hunt later recalled, adding: “I always thought that if I had any skills in business, it was understanding how to sell tickets.” Hunt was being characteristically modest. He didn’t just sell tickets. He told a story, shaped an identity, and made watching football not just entertaining, but a patriotic duty while creating and christening America’s newest national holiday, Super Sunday.
FOR FURTHER READING
David A F Sweet, Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports, 2010.
Henry D .Fetter, “How the Super Bowl Got Its Name: The Real Story,” The Atlantic, 2011.
Michael MacCambridge, Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports, 2012.
Michael MacCambridge, The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, 2005.