Everything but the floats in football's Mardi Gras

For millions of Americans and thousands overseas, the world might as well stop on its axis Sunday when a two-week drum roll ends and the National Football League championship game begins.

Washington politics aside, pro football's Super Bowl is the most watched and talked- about game in the country. A one-shot affair, it allows interest and attention to be focused on several hours of action, rather than a series of games, as in baseball, basketball, or hockey.

The buildup is what really elevates the Super Bowl into the extravaganza -- almost a football Mardi Gras -- that it has become.This swinging city is already besieged by thousands of visitors here to see the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders do battle in Super Bowl XV. For the time being, they're infiltrating the French Quarter, jamming restaurants, hotels, and the airport, and generally making their presence felt by spending in the vicinity of $40 million.

Come 6 p.m. Super Sunday, about 75,000 fans will be under one roof, awaiting the kickoff in a gargantuan metal mushroom called the Louisiana Superdome. The established price on most seats is $40. Scalpers, however, are expected to move the decimal point one space to the right for free-spending customers.

The Super Bowl is fed to some 90 million additional people on TV, the medium responsible for launching pro football's popularity during the '60s. Super Bowl-watching parties are the order of the day in many homes, where everybody gets a 50-yard-line seat for nothing, or so it seems.

Actually, the public pays eventually. Its share is extracted by companies that purchased 23 commercial minutes for $12 million. Since NBC paid $6 million for the rights to the game, the network has no qualms about charging advertisers whatever the market will bear.

In a Super Bowl first, the game will be retelecast at 1 o'clock Monday morning, presumably for serious fans without video recorders.

This football Armageddon was dreamed up in 1966 after the older, established National Football League and the rival American Football League agreed on a merger. Although they continued to play separate schedules until 1970, the two groups decided to begin holding a world champioship game at the end of the '66 season. Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, hit on the name "Super Bowl" after remembering one of his daughter's favorite toys, a high-compression rubber "super ball."

The original Super Bowl, held in Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967, was more of a curiosity piece than anything else. People just wanted to see how badly the NFL's powerful Green Bay Packers would beat the AFL kingpins from Kansas City. Vince Lombardi's team upheld the NFL's honor convincingly with a 35-10 victory, but of concern to everybody were 15,000 empty seats.

Pro football knew it could do better than the 61,646 paid attendance and set out to heavily promote future games. The very next year, Super Bowl II attracted 78,546 to Miami's Orange Bowl, and a history of sellouts was in the making.

The FNL has learned the lessons of treating everyone royally, including the press, which now lavishes so much attention on the game as to threaten overkill. Actually overkill is manifested in numerous ways. For example, the extravagant box lunches distributed to reporters at Super Bowl XII in New Orleans cluttered the press row for the entire second half. The city was just trying to show off the local specialties, a natural inclination for a tourist-oriented town.

To ensure optimum playing conditions and a vacationlike atmosphere, the Super Bowl has always been played in a warm-weather site. This is the fifth time New ORleans has hosted it. Miami has also had it five times; Los Angeles, twice; Pasadena, Calif., twice; and Houston, once.

Next year, in a break from tradition, the league will share the wealth and excitement with the North by moving the game into Detroit's (actually Pontiac's) Silverdome.

Some people, including retired quarterback Fran Tarkenton, have criticized the NFL for playing the Super Bowls in a neutral setting two weeks after the conference championship games.

The league, however, feels its formula for allocating tickets is fair, with 22.5 percent divided between the competing teams, 10 percent doing to the host team, 30 percent to the remaining NFL clubs, and 15 percent to everybody else.

In justifying the prolonged wait, league Commissioner Pete Rozelle says: "When you don't know which two sets of fans are going to need game and airline tickets and hotel reservations until the last minute, it creates a brutal logistical problem. The extra week makes for a smoother event."

It also makes for added suspense, something that players vying for a $18,000 winner's share (losers take home half that much) could probably do without.

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