In all of North American sports, there is no single event quite like the Super Bowl. Occurring in late January or (since 2004) early February every year, the Super Bowl is the championship game of the National Football League, pitting the champion of the American Football Conference (AFC) against the champion of the National Football Conference (NFC). The Super Bowl began as the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game" in 1967, played between the champions of the NFL and the upstart American Football League (AFL), as the first step in eventually merging the leagues. In 1969, the name "Super Bowl" was introduced, and the first two were retroactively designated "Super Bowl I" and "Super Bowl II". Once the merger was completed in 1970, 13 of the 16 then-existing NFL teams became the NFC and the AFL was integrated into the NFL as the AFC, with three teams from the pre-merger NFL joining the AFC. Thus, for the first four years, the Super Bowl championship and the NFL championship were separate titles.
The television broadcast of the game is usually the single most heavily-viewed program in the United States for a given year, and by a very large margin. Anything less than 90 million viewers would be regarded as a massive disappointment, in a country where pulling in even one-third of that audience would be considered mega-hit territory for any other show.note Meanwhile, most other channels will just throw on a No-Hoper Repeat, and even film studios treat Super Bowl weekend as the nadir of the January/February Dump Months. Super Bowl XLVI, which drew an estimated total audience of nearly 167 million in the U.S. alone, currently holds the record for the most-watched U.S. TV program ever. Non-Americans, picture what it'd be like if the FIFA World Cup happened every year, but it was only one game. That's the Super Bowl.
"Super Bowl Sunday," the day on which the game is played, is unofficially considered a national holiday in the United States. Many a major retailer in the USA gears up for Super Bowl Sunday by selling TVs to watch the game on, food and snacks to eat during the game, and seating (like couches) to watch the game from. (By the way, if you're an advertiser or retail store, don't you dare use the term "Super Bowl" without express permission from the NFL. It's not illegal or anything, they just really don't want you to do it.)note
As such, advertising time on the Super Bowl is the most expensive of the entire year; thus, Super Bowl ads are well known for being the most elaborate, expensive, and showy pieces of solicitous short-subject film ever produced, many of which will never be shown again on TV (until they show up on YouTube). It is also the time to introduce new campaigns and slogans (not to mention new products) or to pull out the most elaborate version of an existing series of ads. This tradition of advertising grandeur leads many people to tune in just to watch the ads, even those that might not watch football the rest of the year, a seeming paradox that suits the advertisers just fine.
Also of note is the halftime show, which, since Michael Jackson's 1993 appearance, has featured major acts in popular music in expensive spectacles. Presuming football fans may not be that interested in non-football material, several clever broadcasters have tried to counter-program this portion of the day (examples include the Saturday Night Live specials, WWE's empty arena match, the Lingerie Bowl, the Puppy Bowl, etc.)
Millions of people, fans and non-fans alike, also use the game an an excuse to host viewing parties at which copious amounts of food and drink (and sometimes other substances) are consumed. Increasingly the Super Bowl is also shown in Latin America (it is huge in Mexico, for instance), Europe, and even Asia, despite obvious time-zone problems. Unfortunately, some stations lack any on air American football expertise, and the "experts" they invite sometimes don't even know the first thing about the sport. This has gotten better in recent years, though, and if all else fails you can watch it with the original commentary via numerous live-streams depending on where you live. Increasingly, bars, cinemas, US consulates, or local American football teams host viewing parties which makes economic sense if nothing else, considering that most of those otherwise sit empty on what would be a late Sunday night in the dead of winter. It is also a good way for the sport of football (and America in general) to reach out to the global community and gain a bit of "soft power" or new supporters / members. Of course, the Just Here for Godzilla aspects of the whole shebang tend to be even larger if you watch it outside North America and in a large group or public venue. To their credit, the NFL will spare no effort in making sure that military personnel who are deployed to remote locations will still be able to watch the game.
This Big Game is less prone to Hype Backlash than you might think. The network airing the Super Bowl often takes advantage of the huge audience to debut a new series immediately after the game (The A-Team, Airwolf, The Wonder Years, Homicide: Life on the Street, Family Guy, and American Dad! being among the shows to premiere in this manner) or use it to try to give an existing series a popularity boost.
The Super Bowl was the target of a terrorist attack in Thomas Harris' book and The Film of the Book Black Sunday, as well as Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears. There have been a few close calls in reality, too, which is why it's designated as an event meriting additional security by the U.S. government, much like the Presidential Inauguration or the State of the Union Address. A man with an assault rifle thought better of his plan to open fire on the crowd in Arizona and turned himself in in 2008.
The Super Bowl is also known for its extremely expensive tickets, and for being hosted almost exclusively (in the modern era) in southern or western stadiums or in domed/roofed facilities due to taking place in the middle of winter. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey broke that trend by hosting Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014.
It's also known for the NFL exaggerating the extent of its trademark rights to the "Super Bowl" name. The NFL insists that it's illegal for churches and other nonprofit organizations to advertise their Super Bowl viewing parties with the name "Super Bowl" or even "Super Sunday". This is widely seen to be contrary to the broad recognition of Fair Use in the United States, but because the NFL's lawyers are very scary and fighting them would be far too expensive, most everybody complies with their demands anyway. As a result, Super Bowl party-organizers will usually give their events alternate names such as the "Big Game" or the "Superb Owl". The NFL was near-universally considered to have taken it a step too far when they tried to also trademark the term "Big Game"... despite the fact that the term predates the NFL itself by twenty years: it has referred to the annual Stanford/Cal college football game since 1900.
For a list of the championships by year, including details of the games' events and narratives, see our Super Bowl Recap Page.