Want to go to the Super Bowl? You'll likely need an inside connection and a sizable chunk of change. Tickets for this year's installment of the big game, scheduled to be played Sunday in Minneapolis, will likely be the most expensive tickets in Super Bowl history, with the average price on the resale market on pace to smash the previous record of $9,722.
But 51 years ago, when the NFL and the rival AFL were preparing to face off in the very first Super Bowl, fans could request tickets simply by contacting their local team. And the tickets cost only 12 bucks.
That's the picture that emerges from some letters that were sent by Denver Broncos season-ticket holders in 1966. The letters, along with some other Super Bowl paperwork, were kept in the files of former Broncos general manager Jim Burris. Burris died in 2012, but his files were later acquired via an online auction by Tom Jacobsen, a collector specializing in Broncos memorabilia, who recently discovered the letters. They offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a pro football team on the cusp of the Super Bowl era.
"The files are like a time capsule," Jacobsen said. "It's amazing that Burris kept all of this stuff."
Burris' son Bob, who lives in the Kansas City area, confirmed that he had put the files up for bid. "My dad held on to everything, and I ended up with it after he died," he said. "At one point an auction house called me up, and I ended up giving them some stuff on consignment because, you know, why not? We never thought there was anything of particular value there. But it's fun to hear that you've found some interesting stuff in the files, especially because I was the ball boy for those Broncos teams. I was about 14 years old at the time."
Jim Burris ran the Broncos for only two seasons -- 1965 and 1966 -- but that turned out to be a very eventful period in pro football history. The NFL and AFL announced their merger plans in June of '66, and it was decided that the two leagues' respective champions would face each other for the first time. The game was slated to be played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and although it was officially billed as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt began referring to it informally as the Super Bowl, and many others soon picked up on the name (which didn't become the official moniker until Super Bowl III, two seasons later). One of the most interesting things about the correspondence in the Burris files is seeing how the term "Super Bowl" had already entered common parlance before the first such game was played.
As the 1966 season wound down, the game became an object of curiosity among fans, including one Thomas E. Ross, a Denver dentist and Broncos season-ticket holder who sent a handwritten letter, dated Dec. 5, 1966, to Donald Smith, the team's director of public relations:
Dear Mr. Smith:
As a loyal season ticket holder and member of Denver Broncos Quarterback Club [a local booster club] for seven long years, I have suffered thru good and bad. Please help relieve my suffering by obtaining six (6) tickets to the "Super Bowl" to be played in L.A.
Sincerely, Tom Ross
Smith wrote back to Ross three days later, as follows:
Dear Dr. Ross:
After receiving your letter requesting tickets to the Super Bowl, I called [team owner] Mr. Gerry Phipps to find out if he had heard what the situation would be as far as tickets are concerned. At this stage he does not know how many tickets will be available to this club and, therefore, we are just not in a position to make any definite commitments. We do know that each club will get a small number of tickets, but we do not know whether this will be 20 or 200, or just what number.
Mr. Phipps did say that he felt we would have to limit the number of tickets to any one individual to two because he was sure that whatever our allotment finally turns out to be, will be very small.
I am sorry I cannot be more definite, but this is the situation as it now stands. Certainly we will keep your letter in our file and, if there is anything that can be done, we will be most happy to help you.
Sincerely, Donald R. Smith
At least two fans took a more proactive approach by phoning Burris, the GM, and then following up with reminder letters. One of them was R.D. Hermes, vice president of a local bank, who sent a quick note to Burris on Dec. 23:
Confirming our telephone conversation of today and a previous discussion in October, we would appreciate the opportunity to purchase two tickets to the World Championship Game on January 15. One of these tickets is for Don Strait and the other for myself. We appreciate your assistance in obtaining these tickets.
Yours very truly, R.D. Hermes
A similar note was sent a few days later from the offices of a Denver physician named F.R. Lauvetz:
I would certainly appreciate any direct or indirect help you might give me in obtaining two tickets for the Super Bowl, as per our telephone conversation.
Thank you very much for your courtesies.
Sincerely, F.R. Lauvetz, M.D.
It's not clear whether Ross, Hermes or Lauvetz ended up attending the game, or even whether they're still alive. Attempts to find them or their families during the preparation of this article were unsuccessful. (If you have information on any of them, please get in touch.) In any case, they weren't the only ones to request tickets. The file also contains several lists -- some typewritten and some handwritten -- showing other people who wanted to attend the big game.
Meanwhile, the Broncos were still trying to figure out their ticket allotment. The situation was spelled out in a letter team owner Gerald Phipps sent to AFL president Milt Woodard on Dec. 20:
This refers to your letter of December 16 regarding tickets for the Super Bowl.
First, we definitely want our full allocation of 200 tickets. These should be sent to Mr. James Burris at Bears Stadium, West 20th and Decatur Streets, Denver, Colorado 80211.
Secondly, Mr. Bob Bowie of the Denver Post placed an order with the N.F.L. office the day following the announcement of the inter-league agreement last June for 200 tickets in his name. Mr. Bowie called me this morning and advised me that he had word from the N.F.L. office that these tickets would be added to our allocation of 200 and that a total of 400 would be sent to the Broncos. The N.F.L. could not at this time advise Mr. Bowie whether these tickets would be the $12.00 tickets, the $10.00 tickets, or a mixture of the two. In any event, our 200 at $12.00 plus Mr. Bowie's 200 should also be sent to Mr. Burris.
Best wishes for the Season.
Sincerely, Gerald K. Phipps
Ten days later, on Dec. 30, the Broncos received their basic allotment of 200 tickets, as evidenced by a receipt from the Los Angeles Rams (who were handling the ticket distribution because the game was being played at their home stadium, the Los Angeles Coliseum).
So who got those tickets? About half of them are accounted for on a list that was written on a Broncos envelope -- not exactly the most official-seeming document, but at least it was saved in the files. The list has a series of names, along with the number of tickets going to each person and the resulting payment owed, in multiples of $12. It seems likely that the envelope was used to hold the cash and checks that were used to pay for the tickets. This listing indicates that two tickets went to a "Dr. Ross," who is presumably Thomas Ross, the long-suffering dentist who had sent the handwritten letter:
It all seems rather haphazard and random, but that's part of the charm. From such humble beginnings emerged the corporate juggernaut that we now know as Super Bowl Sunday. Think about that as you watch the spectacle unfold this weekend -- especially if you paid thousands of dollars for one of the coveted tickets.
Paul Lukas plans to write more stories about the Jim Burris files. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.