Posnanski: Super Bowl supposed to be over the top

Posnanski: Super Bowl supposed to be over the top
February 1, 2014, 11:45 pm
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NEW YORK -- You probably know how the Super Bowl was named. The story gets repeated many times every year. The football powers of the time -- NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the NFL and AFL owners, the influencers in the national media and so on -- thought the big game between the AFL and NFL champions deserved a worthy name. The World Series had a cool name. The Masters golf tournament had a cool name. Rozelle apparently wanted to call the game the “Pro Bowl” but that name was already taken by the all-star game.

Kansas City Chiefs founder and AFL patriarch Lamar Hunt somewhat jokingly called it the “Super Bowl.” He had the Whammo bouncy toy super ball on his mind -- he had seen his daughter play with it -- but in truth he wasn't in love with the name.

“I have kiddingly called it the “Super Bowl,” which obviously can be improved upon,” Hunt wrote in a letter to Rozelle, who not only agreed that Super Bowl could be improved upon but felt like the name was basically terrible. Conceited. Comic bookish. Ridiculous. Super Bowl? Who would call their game the Super Bowl? He wanted absolutely nothing to do with that name.

Yes. That’s right. Pete Rozelle didn’t want to call the game the “Super Bowl” because he thought -- and it’s almost impossible to imagine this now -- he thought the name was over the top.

* * *

The question is this: How did we get here? How did we get to the point where the Super Bowl is -- as our guide, author Michael MacCambridge, calls it -- the last big tent in American popular culture?

You probably don’t need another series of unfathomable “How big is the Super Bowl facts” to remind you of the magnitude this game. But let’s throw some out there anyway to know where we stand. For years, the standard for most-watched television show ever was the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983 — a staggering 105 million viewers. It was, for years, the singular television event.

This Super Bowl certainly will become the fifth straight one to surpass that M*A*S*H number.* Some predict Sunday’s Denver-Seattle game will be the most-watched television event ever.

* We are talking here about average viewers, which represent the average across the entire broadcast. This is the most widely accepted rating number –- it’s how many people are watching at any given time. You will sometimes see a number of 125 million watching the last M*A*S*H –- those are total viewers, everyone who watched at least a little bit of the episode. Based on total viewers, more than 160 million people (half of America) will check in to the Super Bowl. That is more than has ever voted in an American presidential election. The top 21 total viewer events in American television history are all Super Bowls.

In a time when everything -- EVERYTHING -- has become fragmented, and everyone is watching, listening and doing their own thing, twice as many men will watch the Super Bowl than anything else this year.

Twice as many women will watch the Super Bowl than anything else this year. Americans, by industry numbers, will eat 10 million pounds of guacamole, eat a billion chicken wings and wash it down with 52 million cases of beer. Depending on the source, it is reported that as many as 70 million people will have a bet of some kind on the game. Companies will pay $4 million for a 30-second commercial spot.

There is nothing like it -- not in sports, not in entertainment, not in politics, nothing. Five or six times as many people watch the Super Bowl as a Game 7 of the World Series. Three times as many watch the Super Bowl as the Academy Awards. Almost four times as many will watch this year’s Super Bowl than watched the State of the Union address -- and that was on 13 different networks.

Studies show people will not schedule weddings on Super Bowl Sunday. They will not take vacations on Super Bowl Sunday (except to go the Super Bowl). Television sales spike, almost half the country orders out for dinner, people stay home. Some of the most watched-television shows in history -- Friends in 1996, Survivor in in 2004, House in 2008, The Voice in 2012 as prime examples -- were shows that simply followed the Super Bowl.

Why? Why is the Super Bowl so huge? Why is it immune to cultural shifts or technological changes? How did the NFL win?

Well, everyone knows, pro football is king. And, beyond that, well it might come down to five events.

* * *

Event No. 1 (1969): Joe Namath guarantees victory.

The story has been told countless times. The point of the Super Bowl, of course, was to match teams from competing leagues -- the National Football League and the American Football League. There are no viable competing leagues now in any sport, so the best comparison might be if the NBA champion took on the European champion in some sort of super basketball bowl. And like that, the establishment team (the NBA, obviously) would be heavily, overwhelmingly favored. Almost nobody really thought the AFL could match up. The NFL champion Green Bay Packers had pretty handily routed their opponents in the first two Super Bowls.

In 1969 the NFL Baltimore Colts were 17-point favorites over the AFL champion New York Jets.

“We’re going to win the game Sunday,” Namath said three days before the game. “I guarantee it.”

The guarantee, and the Jets' upset of the Colts -- and the general coolness of Namath -- changed the Super Bowl dynamic forever. It wasn’t just that the game had more legitimacy after the AFL won, though that’s true. It wasn’t just that more people started paying attention, though that was true too.

Namath’s charisma and guarantee created something mythical about the game. The World Series had Ruth’s called home run and Bill Mazeroski’s home run and a dozen other things that make it extraordinary. Now, the Super Bowl had its own folk story. And the NFL -– with Steve Sabol’s NFL Films and a media rush like no other before it  –- made sure everyone knew it.

"What you have to remember,” says MacCambridge, author of the indispensable NFL history “America’s Game,” “is that the World Series had been going on for three-quarters of a century. The Indianapolis 500, the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, all these had been played since early in the 20th Century. The Super Bowl couldn't begin to match that tradition.

“So they matched that tradition with pomp and circumstance, with balloons and doves and this sense of drama. It was the SUPER Bowl. It had Roman Numerals.”

In other words, the Super Bowl insisted it was big. And people bought in. The Super Bowl demanded to be not only noticed but revered. And it was noticed and revered. Pro football had been closing in on baseball’s popularity for a decade. Then came Namath. Then came Monday Night Football. Then came the Steel Curtain and Roger Staubach and the undefeated Dolphins and the villainous Oakland Raiders and, just after that, Joe Montana and the ’85 Bears.

By the late 1970s, the Super Bowl was already drawing the biggest ratings of the year.

* * *

Event No. 2 (1978): Super Bowl, for the first time, starts at 6 p.m.

You wouldn’t think a small thing like kickoff time could make that much of a difference. But commissioner Pete Rozelle thought about everything. He always wanted NFL games to start early enough that they would be featured in the East coast newspapers the next day. He was keenly aware of the reporters’ deadlines and their needs -- Rozelle was, first and foremost, a public relations man. He wined and dined reporters* and tried to make sure that they were given every reason to celebrate the Super Bowl.

*At the first Super Bowl, reporters were given the choice of a Saturday junket to Santa Anita and horse racing or Disneyland. You can guess which one most sportswriters chose.

Rozelle started the first 11 Super Bowls -- sorry, the XI Super Bowls -- no later than 4:15 p.m. on the East Coast. This included Super Bowl VI, which was played in Los Angeles. He wanted the game started before 4 p.m. on the East Coast, so he had it started at 12:49 local time.

In 1978 -- the year the Cowboys and Broncos played in Super Bowl XII -- Rozelle shifted gears. He still did not want a night game; he wanted it early enough to help reporters at the New York Times and Boston Globe and Washington Post and other newspapers in the East. But he could not help but see the goldmine that was television prime time. The Super Bowl was already a major television event, as big or bigger than the World Series. But with the overwhelming success of Monday Night Football, Rozelle and others wondered what it might mean to move the kickoff back to the 6 p.m. hour and get the second half in prime time.

The kickoff in 1978 was officially 6:17 p.m. ET.

The average number of Super Bowl viewers went from 62 million in 1977 (a very high number) to an astonishing 78 million in 1978, making it the highest-rated television show in American history. The seemingly small time shift had changed the way people watched the Super Bowl. It changed the way television promoted the Super Bowl.

It also started making Monday mornings tough for many people across America. There have been studies that show about 6 percent of the American workforce calls in sick on the Monday after the Super Bowl.

* * *

Event No. 3 (1984) Apple does "1984"-inspired commercials for new Macintosh Computer.

The commercial (directed by Ridley Scott, who had done "Alien" and "Blade Runner" and later won an Oscar for directing "Gladiator") featured a blonde woman in a white tank top and red shorts. She is being chased by futuristic police officers. She runs toward a screen where the flickering image of a man drones on about the “Information Purification Directive.” It is clearly a vision of George Orwell’s classic “1984”. Then, she races through a crowd of bald-headed viewers and throws a sledgehammer through the screen.

The words appear: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 will not be like ‘1984.’”

The commercial blew people’s minds. It was so stark, so different from the bland and goofy and insulting commercials that generally filled the airwaves. It only played one time on network television, with 78 million or so people watching. But it has been replayed so many times on so many other outlets (on news shows, on You Tube) that it is utterly familiar.

The Super Bowl was already the biggest sporting event in America. The Apple commercial might have been the moment the game really began to transcend sports. Companies suddenly realized that the Super Bowl wasn’t just a great opportunity to reach people; it was a singular opportunity to launch something or rebrand themselves. Here, they had the biggest and most engaged audience they would get all season.

In 1984, a 30-second Super Bowl ad cost $368,000.

In 1985, a 30-second Super Bowl ad cost $525,000, the biggest jump in Super Bowl history at nearly 43 percent.

Within a decade, a 30-second Super Bowl ad price would top a million bucks. By then, USA Today had started its Super Bowl Ad Meter, which started ranking the Super Bowl commercials. And suddenly that was another reason to watch the Super Bowl -- for the commercials. In the 1980s and early '90s -- when the game themselves were often uninteresting blowouts -- the commercials were often a bigger topic of conversation.

* * *

Event No. 4 (1992): In Living Color on Fox does its own Super Bowl halftime show, though the game was on CBS.

The early Super Bowl halftime shows are, of course, famously awful. The first few simply featured marching bands. They were attempts to recreate the Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl halftime shows, you know, with floats and innocuous acts and silly themes. The idea of having a real concert in the middle of the Super Bowl was -- it’s hard to see this now -- kind of absurd.

“In a way, it really makes no logical sense to have some big rock concert at halftime of a football game,” MacCambridge says. “They are obviously not connected. It’s not an obvious leap. It’s a bit like having a pheasant hunt in the middle of your wedding ceremony.”

Even as the halftime shows got bigger, they got more curious. The decidedly uncool group “Up With People” performed at FIVE Super Bowl halftimes. There were also some Walt Disney-produced shows, Chubby Checker, the preposterously ill-conceived and infamous Elvis Presto with 3-D effects. “They were appealing to the cruise ship audience,” MacCambridge says.

In 1992, the NFL went for what was probably somewhat edgy for a Super Bowl -- they had Gloria Estefan perform while Olympic skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill performed.

But in in 1992, Fox’s classic comedy skit show “In Living Color” did an ACTUAL edgy halftime show of their own. The show was live and a little bit dangerous and exactly the opposite of Gloria Estefan performing with ice-skaters. “In Living Color” drew estimated 20 or 25 million viewers away from the Super Bowl.

This changed the NFL’s thinking entirely. The league has not always been the quickest to innovate – look how long it took them just to put the game close to prime time -- but once the NFL gets its momentum going in a direction, they are about as powerful a force as there is in American entertainment. For the 1993 halftime show, they wanted something big. So they got Michael Jackson, the biggest star in the world.

His halftime show took the Super Bowl to a whole other level.

Super Bowl viewers in 1992: 79.6 million.

Super Bowl viewers in 1993: 91 million.

It was more than numbers. It was word of mouth. EVERYONE was talking about Michael Jackson performing at the Super Bowl. The NFL didn’t maintain that kind of halftime momentum. They did get a few stars but they went back to putting on ensemble shows with themes like Salute to Motown and Celebration of Soul, Salsa and Swing. In 2002, though, they got U2, perhaps the biggest rock band in the world, to perform. In 2006, they got the Rolling Stones and in 2007 they got Prince. In 2009 they got Bruce Springsteen. And the viewership climbed rapidly toward 100 million.

Perhaps the seminal moment came not at the halftime show itself, but fitting enough, in the Halftime Show press conference during the week of the Super Bowl in 2007. Prince had said he was not going to take any questions but then, somewhat surprisingly, he asked for a question. Someone asked, “How do you feel about being at the Super Bowl?”

Prince then whipped around his guitar and broke into Johnny B. Goode.

The Super Bowl was rock and roll. And rock and roll was the Super Bowl.


Event No. 5 (2004): The Wardrobe malfunction. Janet Jackson’s breast pops out during the halftime show.

One of the great lines in the movie “This Is Spinal Tap” happens when the band finally sees their album cover, and it’s entirely black. One of the band members (played by Christopher Guest) inexplicably likes the cover. His reason: “That’s so black, it’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is: None. None more black.”

How much more can the Super Bowl be? And the answer is: None. None more Super Bowl. It’s the most hyped, marketed, celebrated, complained about day of every year. And every year it gets bigger. “It’s the best of America,” MacCambridge says. “It’s the worst of America. But mostly, it’s the MOST of America.”

And so, everything about it is overboard, overwrought, overdone. By the time Janet Jackson’s bare breast pops out -- for 9/16ths of a second according to Rolling Stone -- the Super Bowl was already the supreme event in America. But, improbably, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction (and, really, can there be a better way to describe it?) seemed to go up to an even higher level. Nobody in the stadium seems to know anything about it. I certainly didn’t. But at home, where everyone watched, it was enormous, one of the “Did you see that” moments. The FCC got involved. People argued about it for years. It became impossibly famous, there with the last episode of Seinfeld and Who Shot J.R.?

Now, every moment in and around the Super Bowl becomes huge and outsized. Take something opaque, like Super Bowl media coverage. This is a week when the media writes and talks about how many media members are writing and talking about the media and how absurd it has become, you know, with all this media around.

“Has the media crush been crazier than you expected,” we ask the players.

“It hasn’t been more crazy and it hasn’t been less crazy,” Seattle running back Robert Turbin says.

“It gets a little old after a while,” Seattle tight end Zach Miller says.

“I like it,” Denver tackle Terrance Knighton says.

I’m guessing historians 300 years from now will have a hard time explaining this bizarre ritual.

Or take the “duck” controversy, if you can call it that. How can something so silly become an American talking point? Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman -- after becoming the focus of national attention for screaming in a postgame interview –- calls some of Peyton Manning’s passes “ducks.” Manning responds by saying, “I do throw ducks. I’ve thrown a lot of yards- and touchdowns-ducks, so I’m actually quite proud of it.” People spend hours and hundreds of thousands of words breaking down what this could mean to civilization.

It’s so absurd that Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch becomes a national story because he doesn’t really want to talk. What does THAT mean? Do people understand Lynch?

“I don’t think the media understands anybody,” says Seattle’s defensive end Michael Bennett. “Because if they did, they wouldn’t be mediating."

Round and round. People bet on everything they can about the game, including how high the jersey number will be of the player who scores the first touchdown. Broadway, one of the most famous streets on earth, is shut down and renamed “Super Bowl Boulevard.” Ticket scalpers complain about dropping prices (the lowest price for a ticket seems to be in the $1,500 range), while business and city leaders keep trying to spin just how much money this will bring to New York.

They once felt sheepish about calling this the Super Bowl. Now, if anything, “super” undersells the thing.

“It’s the one pop culture event a year you cannot ignore,” MacCambridge says. “I know people who love movies who don’t give a damn about the Academy Awards. I know a lot of people who love music and can’t be bothered with the Grammys. But every sports fan I know, just about everybody I know, watches the Super Bowl. … Put it this way: Nobody ever says, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot the Super Bowl was on.'”

I ask MacCambridge if he can think of the most Super Bowl moment ever. Of course he can come up with any number of football plays -- Otis Taylor high-stepping down the sidelines, a balletic Lynn Swann catch, Marcus Allen’s reverse-his-field run, Joe Montana’s last-minute touchdown pass, MIke Jones making a tackle at the 1 to save St. Louis’ Super Bowl XXXIV, on and on -- but instead he thinks of this:
“In 2001, Ray Charles sang ‘America the Beautiful’ before the Super Bowl,” he says. “And he’s absolutely killing it. It’s a seminal moment. There are tears in people’s eyes. People are hugging each other. It’s just a beautiful moment.

“And then, just as he finishes, they shuffle off Ray Charles so that the Backstreet Boys can sing the National Anthem. The Backstreet Boys. That’s America.”