Why Justin Timberlake Owes His Super Bowl LII Halftime Performance to Michael Jackson

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the King of Pop's Super Bowl XXVII halftime show

By Billy Nilles Feb 02, 2018 2:00 PMTags
Michael Jackson, Super BowlSteve Granitz/WireImage

When Justin Timberlake takes the stage in Minneapolis for the Pepsi Super Bowl LII Halftime Show, as with most things in his career, he has one very important person to thank: Michael Jackson.

In fact, every music superstar who's been drafted to take the stage for what is arguably one of the biggest concerts in the entire world since the King of Pop brought the Rose Bowl to its feet on January 31 at Super Bowl XXVII owes Jackson a debt of gratitude. Why, you ask? Because 25 years ago, MJ single-handledly turned the halftime show into a thing, a spectacle capable of drawing in more viewers than the game itself. Without him, the Super Bowl would merely be an opportunity to see some neat new commercials punctuated by an arduous and entirely too long game of keep away. (We kid. Kinda.)

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To understand what Jackson did, we have to go back to the year prior to his paradigm-shifting performance. The year was 1992 and the Washington Redskins were facing off against the Buffalo Bills in, coincidentally, Minneapolis. The halftime show? Something called "Winter Magic," which featured a celebration to the winter season and the Winter Olympics. Dancers and the Pride of Minnesota marching band were joined by former Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill, who skated on sheets of Teflon atop platforms placed on the field. Gloria Estefan sang during the finale. It was, well, as exciting as it sounds.

For the first time, another network (Fox) decided to air counter-programming to compete with the halftime show, putting a special live episode of their hit sketch comedy show In Living Color on the air. Unsurprisingly, the stunt worked and Fox managed to lure viewers away from the biggest sporting event of the year--and keep them from returning.

Well, TV networks don't shell out the exorbitant sums of money they do to air the Super Bowl only to watch that promised viewership be siphoned away by someone else. Something had to be done. Enter: The King of Pop.

In a move that broke with tradition—if you thought "Winter Magic" was a fluke, the two prior years were a salute to New Orleans and the Peanuts comics, inexplicably, followed by "A Small World Salute to 25 Years of the Super Bowl" produced by Disney—the decision was made to turn the halftime show into a pop music sensation that would lure in mainstream viewers who maybe didn't give a damn about football. It wasn't easy to land Jackson, though.

His manager Sandy Gallin turned down the NFL's proposal three times, having asked for a $1 million fee at one point, before finally saying yes. While the NFL has maintained a policy to never pay appearance fees for its halftime performers, the league and Frito-Lay did agree to donate $100,000 to Jackson's Heal the World Foundation, as well as provide commercial airtime for the foundation's Heal L.A. campaign. The concessions got Jackson there, and Jackson being there did exactly what the NFL hoped he would. For the first time in Super Bowl history, the ratings actually increased once the halftime show began—and stayed up for the second half of the game. And the rest, as they say, is history.

While not every performer (or combo of performers) to follow in Jackson's footsteps has been as successful as he was—The Blues Brothers and ZZ Top, anyone?—in recent years, the spectacle delivered by the A-list talent locked in by the NFL has more than lived up to his legacy. From Madonna to Beyonce, Bruno Mars to Lady Gaga, the Super Bowl halftime show has consistently been the year's hottest music ticket. And we're certain JT will be no exception.

And we owe it all to the King of Pop. To relive his Super Bowl XXVII genius, be sure to check out the video above.

This story was originally published on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 at 6:00 a.m. PT.