Super impact of bowl game

Bowl means more than winning team

January 31, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe has the regrettable distinction of being the poorest nation on Earth.

Perhaps the ultimate injustice, though, will be piled on the small country in the Gulf of Guinea tomorrow, when the income that CBS generates from televising the Super Bowl - as much as $200 million - could be four times Sao Tome's entire gross domestic product for an entire year.

That, of course, is not the only startling figure that will emerge from tomorrow's big game: More Americans will tune in to the Super Bowl than bothered to vote in the last presidential election. And in an age when fingers click the remote faster than the speed of sound, almost 10 percent of viewers will watch solely to see the commercials.

But what does it say about a people who become more excited about sweaty athletes than their elected officials, or will pay $2.3 million every half-minute - almost $77,000 per second, or more than twice the nation's per capita income - to peddle goods during one football game?

David Blum doesn't find unsettling sociopolitical implications in our love affair with the Super Bowl. Indeed, he says, it's largely the result of good timing and clever marketing.

The National Football League brilliantly filled a national social void years ago by placing the game between Christmas and Easter.

"It's right after the rush of the holidays. People are in fairly cold-weather locations ... and there are few events that bring people together," says Blum, senior vice president for Baltimore advertising firm Eisner Communications Inc. and an expert on all matters relating to the Super Bowl.

That opportunity to snare an almost captive winter audience has not been lost on others, Blum notes, as both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards shows this year were moved up on the calendar.

Jonathan Shorr, professor of language, literature and communications design at the University of Baltimore and a pop culture authority, says the fascination with the Super Bowl illustrates America's embracing of money, competition and docility.

"Since World War II," he says, "we have increasingly become a passive rather than an active society. ... We'd rather play video golf than real golf [or] watch football on TV than in the stadium."

That passivity, Shorr says, also affects the political fabric of the country, which explains why on a good year, only half of the eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections.

"Voting still means going somewhere and perhaps standing in line," he says. "It's easier not to go. It's easier to stay at home than vote."

The University of Baltimore, he noted, posted student grades online for the first time this past semester. The response has been surprising.

"What we're finding," Shorr says, "is that a lot of kids are responding. ... They don't like their grades."

Before, a few students might confront a professor and complain. Now, Shorr says, they are uninhibited in their protests because they can lodge them from the comfort - and sanctuary - of their computers at home.

Both Blum and Shorr, however, say that much of the Super Bowl's appeal comes from savvy marketing.

"The NFL itself is one of the best run, best managed, best marketed [businesses] in this country," says Blum.

That marketing is fueled in large part by the news media.

"Media attention ... keeps growing and growing. It has made this something that is bigger than itself," Blum says.

There is no other event, he points out, where people even care about the advertisements they will see. But with the Super Bowl, the ads airing tomorrow will be office chatter Monday.

The buzz created by the annual Super Bowl rollout of new commercials, Blum says, "got into people's minds. ... These really are the best commercials of the year. To get people to talk about your product is essentially buzz marketing. It's grassroots."

Shorr says there's another element that draws so many to the game: The Super Bowl is more fun than, say, watching politicians duke it out in Iowa or New Hampshire.

"With the Super Bowl, there's violence, a certain level of strategy, music and dance ... sometimes with some sexual connotation," Shorr says. "People think that's better than some middle-aged white guys in suits, who at best people want to trust, but aren't that comfortable with."

By the way, Blum intends to watch the game, either by himself or with a couple of friends. Shorr says he will catch the new ads, but he doesn't care which team wins or loses.

Supersize it

Facts and figures related to tomorrow's Super Bowl:

Bets: More than $70 million will be legally bet on the game. An estimated $4 billion will be bet illegally.

Eats: Domino's expects to sell more than 1.2 million pizzas nationwide, 42 percent more than on a typical Sunday.

Ads: A 30-second commercial during the first Super Bowl in 1967 cost about $42,000. This year: $2.3 million.

Eyes: An estimated 140 million Americans will watch the game. Just over 105 million people voted in the 2000 presidential election.

Sources: Associated Press, Advertising Age, Sun news services, Lexis-Nexis

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