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The first Super Bowl was played in January of 1967, and people thought so much of it that they left more than 30,000 seats empty. The expansive Los Angeles Coliseum was perhaps two-thirds full as the Green Bay Packers took on the Kansas City Chiefs. The two networks that covered the game, CBS and NBC, were so impressed that each repurposed the videotape used to capture the broadcast, leaving no official visual record.

In other words, practically no one in 1967 had an inkling of what this game, this event, would become. As the Super Bowl turns 50 in Santa Clara today, its impact is hard to overstate. So many American will watch the game on TV that companies are willing to pay $5 million to advertise their cars and soft drinks for 30 seconds during the telecast. The hoopla surrounding the contest is so outsized that even a sophisticated city like San Francisco seems transformed.

At 50, the Super Bowl has never been more popular, more profitable or more noteworthy. But is it sustainable? Can the NFL continue to expand economically and geographically, even as the violence at its core becomes a recurring front-page issue?

Or frame it this way: Will there be a Super Bowl 100?

The men who play the game, or played it as long as they were physically able, are confident we’ll see another 50 of these things.

“Well, hopefully I’m around, or close to being around, to see it,” said former defensive end Willie McGinest, now an NFL Network analyst. “It’s a great sport, man, it’s a great game. I don’t see our sport going anywhere. I think it’s stronger and bigger than ever, it gets bigger every year. The players are better. Our resources get better, the equipment, television — everything you can think of gets bigger and better every year, so I see us trending in the right direction.”

Let’s assume for a moment that McGinest is correct and the Super Bowl reaches its centennial in 2066. What will we be watching, and how?

“If there is gonna be a Super Bowl 100, what is it gonna be like?” asked Marshall Faulk, a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back and now an NFL Network voice. “Will we be playing on the moon? Where will the game be?”

Faulk believes the Super Bowl will eventually settle into a permanent home. He cites the Masters golf tournament, the power of which derives from its hallowed fairways in Augusta, Ga. Faulk doesn’t really think the game will go lunar, though. (Scientific question: Can you hear Chris Berman in space?) He has another idea.

“I think at some point in time the NFL gets off of its high horse, builds a stadium that seats 100,000 to 200,000 in Las Vegas, and have the game there,” Faulk said. “… It would be great for us to have a venue to look forward to. And name it The Ship. We’re going to play on The Ship.”

The site of Super Bowl 100 is a side question, though. Looking at footage of Vince Lombardi’s Packers, it’s clear the biggest changes will be in how the game is played, the uniforms and equipment the players wear, and how the sport is conveyed to fans.

A recent collaboration by Sports Illustrated and Wired magazines examined football’s future on these fronts, and more.

Among the notions discussed in the “SB 100” series: translucent face masks, rented drones to provide in-game feeds to fans in attendance, stadium suites that double as office towers, virtual-reality software as standard practice equipment for all players and constantly updated metric data to help coaches decide what to do on, say, fourth-and-2.

Pads with sensors proposed

Microsoft recently sponsored something it called the Imagine Bowl, encouraging people to devise technologies that might help NFL coaches, players and/or fans. The winning entry was called PlayerMetrics. Cooked up by Colin Edwards, a 30-year-old logistics and operations worker from Seattle, the system would use sensors within a player’s pads to chart stats such as heart rate and hydration levels to create a fatigue index, which would be available in real time to coaches and trainers on the sidelines.

Edwards won $50,000 for the idea.

“I was talking with the Nike people this morning, just about the seamless uniforms and all the stuff coming out just in the next two or three years,” said NFL Network’s Heath Evans, a retired fullback. “You could probably imagine guys that have full pads, better pads than what they have now, that are more streamlined. You might not even be able to see it. They might actually be out there in a very thin, almost like body armor, where they can functionally move in every way.”

Really, though, talk of what the Super Bowl might look like in 50 years rests upon a huge assumption: that the NFL will exist in 2066. If the league can’t adequately address head trauma, it may never see the age of the hologram.

The end could come through attrition. Linebacker Chris Borland retired from the 49ers last spring after one superb season, citing the risk of brain damage. Two weeks ago, former Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El said that if he had to do it over again, he would not play in the NFL.

Future legal battles

“Right now,” Randle-El told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”

The NFL’s downfall could also come on the legal/financial front. Last April, federal judge Anita Brody brokered a deal that might end up paying out more than $1 billion to players who retired before July 7, 2014. The settlement was announced with much fanfare, but more than 200 retirees opted out. Some of them have already initiated their own suits.

Every week, it seems, we learn of a new victim of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that results from repeated concussions and leads to symptoms that mirror Alzheimer’s disease. On Wednesday, it was the late quarterback Ken Stabler, who led the Raiders to a Super Bowl title after the 1976 season.

Is it possible that fears over concussions and CTE, and the legal battles they spark, will undermine the NFL and make the Super Bowl a relic akin to the gladiator matches of ancient Rome?

Among the NFLers assembled here to promote Super Bowl 50, the debate was entirely one-sided. These are men who have derived considerable fame and fortune from football. When it comes to weighing its virtues and vices, they are the choir.

Will there be a Super Bowl 100?

Irvin: ‘There’ll be a 150’

“Oh god, yes. No doubt,” said Michael Irvin, Hall of Fame wide receiver and ESPN analyst. “There’s no other game in this world that brings people together like the NFL does. And it brings people together on many levels — different races. We don’t (care about) socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s just, what team are you with?”

“I get chill bumps even thinking about watching this in New Orleans, when that game returned in New Orleans,” Irvin said, referring to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Oh, my god. It was incredible. That’ll never leave. That’ll never leave.”

“Will there be a 100? Yeah, there’ll be a 100. And there’ll be a 150 if we’re all still here,” Evans said. “Truth is, this game isn’t going anywhere. People love it. It is the best thing in the world.”

These men argue that football, more than any other sport, instills humility, teamwork and sacrifice.

But even if that’s true, it might not be enough to preserve the game if we continue to see our heroes torn apart. The NFL may have to figure out a better way to protect its players. A lot of people are confident that can be done.

“I don’t think this game’s going away. I think it’s gonna change,” said former quarterback Trent Dilfer, now with ESPN. “I think we’ll have a non-collision sport Monday through Friday. I think we’ll always have a collision sport Saturday and Sunday. Or maybe I should say Monday through Thursday; it’s big in high school football.”

That approach makes sense. The collective bargaining agreement negotiated by NFL owners and players already limits the amount of hitting a team can do, both in and out of football season.

Evans believes nutrition is ultimately the key in reducing concussions. Others argue that the answer is better equipment, especially helmets.

Robots on the gridiron

But 50 years is a long way out. Five decades ago, man had never set foot on the moon, and we didn’t have the Internet or Hot Pockets. Why not dream big?

“I’m gonna say that there will be robots playing football, but they’ll look like humans,” said Boomer Esiason, the retired quarterback and CBS analyst. “And they’ll be controlled by people, who you will then bet on. So me and you, in Super Bowl 100, you have your team and I have my team. I’m controlling my team and I’m calling all the plays, with actual robots on the field. So when somebody does get a concussion or breaks a knee or a leg or whatever, they just roll him right off and bring another guy on and nobody cares.”

Esiason seemed half-serious at best. But why not? In October, fans filled Madison Square Garden (capacity: 18,200) in New York to watch Vega Squadron defeat Team Secret in the videogame Dota 2. Professional gamers reportedly made $30 million in prize money in 2014.

If people will pay to watch guys play Halo, would they not pay to watch computer-generated football players blasting the virtual snot out of each other?

That would be one way to appease our collective conscience without giving up the hard-hitting game we have come to love — especially on Super Sunday.

“I mean, this is football,” Marshall Faulk said. “It’s barbaric. But the alternative is not to play. And that ain’t happening.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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