Too much of a good thing, and we just can't get our fill

The Super Bowl has grown into more than a mere game

January 28, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

It's become the King Kong of cultural extravaganzas, bigger than Mardi Gras, bigger than the Kentucky Derby and Daytona 500, bigger than all the cheering drunks shoehorned into Times Square on New Year's Eve - bigger even than American Idol.

It's a day to worship at the altar of the big-screen TV, to swill beer and scarf pizza, to listen to inhuman amounts of X's and O's blather on the pre-game show, the game broadcast, the halftime report and the post-game wrap-up show.

It's a day to wince as another aging pop singer is trotted out for halftime entertainment, a day to critique the new commercials, a day to howl at the gods if you go down in flames in the office pool.

Oh, sure, they play a little football at some point too.

What we're talking about is the Super Bowl, and as the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts ready themselves for next Sunday's Super Bowl XLI in Miami, one thing is clear: There's no spectacle on earth quite like it.

"It's the great holiday of consumption," said Mark Dyreson, an associate professor of kinesiology and history at Penn State, who has written about the Super Bowl for the Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days . "We don't play football. We watch. We consume."

In fact, watching the Super Bowl is one of the few things we still do collectively as a society.

Dyreson and other researchers have, of course, broken down the stats:

More than 200 million of us attend some sort of Super Bowl gathering.

Over 141 million viewers in the U.S. watched last year's game, as did an audience of 1 billion in 230 countries worldwide.

Four of the 10 most-watched TV shows in history are Super Bowls.

A 30-second commercial airing during the game costs $2.6 million.

Over 40 percent of the viewing audience is female. More women watch the Super Bowl than any other TV event, including the Academy Awards.

What else? More money is bet on the Super Bowl than any other sporting event.

More takeout pizza is sold during the Super Bowl than at any other time of the year. Only New Year's Eve rivals it for the sale of beer and booze.

Clearly, the country is obsessed with the big game and revels in all its excess.

Churches and youth sports leagues rework their schedules around it. Traffic on some highways is nearly nonexistent after the kickoff. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even drug dealers chill when the Super Bowl rolls around.

"It's truly an American festival," said Michael D. Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy, who has studied and written about the Super Bowl for years.

Then again, the glitzy Super Bowl of today would hardly be recognized by those who played and attended the first one back in 1967.

That Super Bowl pitted the vaunted Green Bay Packers of legendary coach Vince Lombardi against the upstart Kansas City Chiefs.

Tickets for the game averaged 12 bucks. There were 40,000 empty seats at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, even though the game was blacked out on local TV.

Terrified no one would come, the lords of pro football had even given away thousands of tickets.

It wasn't even called the Super Bowl back then. Instead, it was burdened by the single most boring name ever given to a sporting event: the American Football League-National Football League World Championship Game.

(Not until Super Bowl III, when New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory over the Baltimore Colts, was it actually called the Super Bowl. The name was conjured by Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt, who had watched his daughter play with one of her favorite toys, a Super Ball.)

By today's standards, the halftime show was a snooze: Marching bands from the University of Michigan and University of Arizona entertained. (Carol Channing, at Super Bowl IV, was the first big-name halftime performer.)

No breasts flashed scandalously from leather jackets, no wrinkled British rock stars pranced across a stage illuminated by a giant red tongue.

There were no fog machines, no laser-light shows, no Paris Hilton sightings, no sideline interviews with Donald Trump and his lacquered helmet of hair.

Even the commercials -- a 60-second spot cost less than $100,000 - were tame: no video game characters cooling off with Cokes, no wisecracking lions in spots for Taco Bell's new Carne Asada Steak Grilled Taquitos, as there will be during this year's broadcast.

Compared to the spectacle that is today's game - Billy Joel will sing the national anthem, Prince rocks the house at halftime - it was meat-and-potatoes football, which suited gruff, no-nonsense Lombardi just fine.

"If he had his way," said Bernacchi, "he would have had [the] game played in a vacuum and reported it two weeks later. No fuss, no media, just football."

In fact, one of the stars of the game, Packers substitute wide receiver Max McGee, was so impressed with the Super Bowl's importance that he went out on the town the night before and got hammered.

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