From marching bands to megastars: How the Super Bowl halftime show became a global spectacle

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2007 AP

FILE - Prince performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl XLI NFL football game at Dolphin Stadium in Miami on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007. When the Super Bowl halftime show was born, high school and college marching bands took center field. But over the years, the intermission during the NFLs championship game has turned into one of sports biggest spectacles with superstar performances. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

LOS ANGELES – Underneath his umbrella, NFL legend Dan Marino stood nearly drenched on the sideline watching Prince’s epic “Purple Rain” Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007 during a torrential Miami downpour.

For Marino, Prince’s iconic show was one the greatest moments in the history of halftime shows — which was once viewed as a humdrum intermission featuring college marching bands. But in time, the midway point of the NFL’s championship game has emerged into one of sport’s biggest spectacles with superstar performances from Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Madonna, Aerosmith and U2.

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“The halftime performance has come a long way,” said the Hall of Fame quarterback who played 17 seasons with the Miami Dolphins and competed in the 1985 Super Bowl. As an NFL analyst, Marino's had a front-row seat to several halftime shows.

“Not a lot of people really watched it,” he continued. “But now, as we head into Super Bowl 58, people love to watch the halftime show.”

In nearly six decades, the halftime festivities have transformed from a family-oriented show with patriotic tunes into entertainment’s biggest stage with top-tier performers, pyrotechnics and superb backup dancers. The 12-to-15 minute performance sometimes attracts more eyeballs than the actual championship game, consistently drawing more than 100 million viewers.

Last year, Rihanna ’s performance became the most-watched in history with over 121 million viewers, barely edging Katy Perry's 2015 show. The number from Rihanna's set is about six million more than Fox’s broadcast of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 38-35 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“I think the live element is pretty exciting for people because it’s a massive production and there’s so many moving pieces,” said actor Scarlett Johansson, who doesn’t consider herself a football enthusiast. But she’s intrigued by the unpredictability of the halftime show like Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson ’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” Lady Gaga dropping from a stadium roof and Rihanna’s pregnancy reveal.

“You kind of watch with nervous excitement,” Johansson said. “You know at any moment something could maybe go wrong. That’s why it’s so fun to watch it because you’ve got all this anticipation. The production is so huge and so many people have come together to create this one moment. It’s kind of awesome.”

Kris Jenner agrees, calling the halftime show a “giant surprise.”

“The production level and how quickly they put it together as they're breaking into commercial and come back with this fabulous, epic show,” said Jenner, the matriarch of “The Kardashians” reality television show. “Through all the years and technology, it gets better and better. It's so exciting to watch and see what they come up with next and who is going to perform. It's such a big deal.”

Usher — who last year told The Associated Press his appearance with the Black Eyed Peas during the 2011 Super Bowl taught him not to “take the moments for granted because you only get 13 of them” — will headline this year's show in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

His show will be vastly different than the NFL’s first Super Bowl halftime show in 1967, which featured marching bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling State University, a historically Black college, along with hundreds of flying pigeons, thousands of balloons and two soaring men wearing jetpacks.

After the inaugural Super Bowl, the NFL kept bringing back other marching bands, drill teams, signed Chubby Checker and Up with People, an organization that stage positive thinking through dance and song performances. However, none of those acts were considered huge draws.

But as the Super Bowl's popularity soared and game day emerged as an unofficial holiday in the U.S., the NFL wanted the halftime show to grow in the same capacity. The league tapped New Kids on the Block and Gloria Estefan the first two years of the '90s. Then it saw a huge breakthrough when Michael Jackson headlined the 1993 show at the Rose Bowl in Southern California, where the King of Pop notoriously moonwalked across the stage and performed hits including “Billie Jean,” “Black or White” and “Heal the World.”

Jackson’s stellar performance opened the door for other stars like the Rolling Stones, Diana Ross, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira who are eager to perform.

“That certainly was the one that changed the course of pop stars and major musicians taking that stage seriously,” said Seth Dudowsky, the head of music at the NFL. He’s the point person for all musical activations for the league and a liaison with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, which has produced the halftime show since 2019.

The NFL handles production costs and expenses for performers — who don’t get paid — but the exposure to hundreds of millions of people worldwide is considered priceless.

Dudowsky recalled when Coldplay frontman Chris Martin said the “Super Bowl of music is the Super Bowl.” He said the halftime show has been able to grow thanks to the NFL's ability to adjust to the current culture and giving deserving artists the platform to express their artistry.

Some notable examples include U2's remembrance of the 9/11 victims; Beyoncé's unapologetic Blackness and political activism through her Black power anthem “Formation”; and the first show to feature hip-hop artists led by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in 2022.

“We really wanted to start to focus on leading into culture," said Dudowsky, who has worked at the NFL since 2013 and attended 11 Super Bowls. “Whether that’s the culture of the city, what’s happening in culture at large and then focusing on it so that what we’re doing feels culturally relevant and using that platform for artists to be able to be themselves and show their art on stage. ... We want them to feel empowered.”

Dogg praised NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay-Z for pushing the halftime show forward. The league worked with Roc Nation to help its Inspire Change initiative, created by the NFL after an agreement with a coalition of players who demonstrated during the national anthem to protest social and racial injustice in this country.

“Shout out to Jay-Z for changing the climate. Roger Goodell for giving him an opportunity,” Dogg said. “This is music. The music that dictates the world is what's performing at halftime now. They’re starting to understand that it’s about what those players want to hear, what those fans want to hear, and what’s universally effective. It has no color on it now. Pop used to have a color on it. Now pop is popular. So, the most popular music is the music that we make. It makes sense to put those people on there that make that music.”

Dogg said Usher perfectly “fits the mold to the fullest.

“He looks good. He dances good. He sounds good,” the rapper said. “All the above. And he's got hit records. You want to see that. You want to see a performer perform. You want to see a real entertainer.”

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