At 6:30 p.m. Sunday evening, over 100 million Americans will gather in front of their TV sets to watch a football game.
Well, some will be watching a football game. Others will be wishing the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos would hurry up and get off the field so Bruno Mars can do his thing (which from what I’ve gathered is impersonate The Police). Many others will be hoping for a punt, turnover, touchdown, replay review, injury or one of the dozens of other excuses FOX will use to go to commercial.
Regardless, we will all be doing this together. The Super Bowl remains one of the few entertainment and sports cultural touchstones we still share as Americans. And it is certainly the biggest.
Given how much damage has been done to it by the avalanche of concussion warnings recently, one might wonder how much longer football, and by extension its showcase event, will retain their status.
One might also wonder if the bad publicity does enough damage to our current national pastime whether another sport might be poised to replace it as America’s obsession.
In that case, it’s worth examining first how the Super Bowl, now in its 48th year, got to be this big.
What, you think it was the games? Please. The average score of the first 30 Super Bowls was 48-6. The games were almost always over by halftime.
Without a compelling product on the field, the NFL needed a lot of other things to fall into place for the Super Bowl to become the annual mega-event it is. A perfect storm of timing, technology, conspicuous consumption and narcissism, to be more precise.
Start with when it’s played — in the middle of winter, on a Sunday night (sorry, no matter how much America could use the hangover helper, it’s never going to be moved to Saturday) — the game already has the biggest captive audience it could want and little to compete for it. All of the other major sports going on are in the dog days of their season.
Then there are the sideshows that draw the non-football fans, mainly the commercials and halftime shows. Just as there will be an endless parade of talking heads analyzing what happened between the Seahawks and Broncos for the 24 hours after the Lombardi Trophy is awarded, there will be just as many, if not more, analyzing everything from (Bruno) Mars to M&M’s.
Everyone uses the NFL to sell their brand and vice-versa because, for at least one night, they are all intertwined. It is hard to imagine another sporting event appealing to so many people, crossing every demographic, the way the Super Bowl does.
Sports with a championship series can’t possibly hope to duplicate the Super Bowl every year. Even if a final series builds up to a must-watch seventh game, it won’t have the most basic advantages the Super Bowl enjoys. The NBA and NHL finals almost make it to summer. The World Series has to compete with football.
The World Series was once the center of the American sports landscape, but those days are long gone and never coming back. The games are too long and boring and played too late at night. The All-Star Game, once the can’t-miss event of the summer, suffers from the same problems and lost all of its charm with free agency and interleague play.
The NBA is overexposed and almost completely uninteresting, and that’s just on Christmas, which the league has tried desperately to make its showcase day. David Stern spent the last 15 years trying to duplicate the heyday that spanned from Bird and Magic to Jordan and hasn’t even come close, despite having some of the greatest athletes in the world at his disposal.
The NHL suffers from a inescapable mix of geographic, cultural and leadership deficiencies. It stumbled upon a good idea with its New Year’s Day outdoor games, got greedy and overwhelmed us with them. Now they aren’t rally anything special to the diehard or casual hockey fan. The league can’t even do the right thing without screwing it up.
Boxing and MMA are out. Some old-timers would argue that once upon a time a heavyweight title bout was the biggest thing going. But those sports are so tied to pay-per-view there is no way either of them will ever be widely available to the masses.
Tennis and soccer are out because it’s an indisputable fact that Americans will only watch Americans. Unless the Williams sisters are playing each other with the winner writing the loser out of her will, very few Americans will care about tennis. World Cup ratings are growing and will continue to grow with this summer’s event. But until the USMNT becomes a powerhouse and makes soccer more than a niche sport here, 100 million Americans aren’t tuning in.
Golf is too boring. The Masters could try to spice it up by having Tiger Woods re-create “Thanksgiving with the Woods family, 2009” at Butler Cabin annually, with America’s sweetheart Lindsey Vonn in the role of Elin. But I doubt people are going to sit through Sergio Garcia tapping in a four-foot putt to get to the drama.
Auto racing used to own Memorial Day weekend with the Indy 500, but that was a couple of generations ago. NASCAR fills the football void for a weekend with the Daytona 500, but that’s at the start of the season. Any buildup to the big race is inherently stunted. And anyway, people looking to get away from the crippling violence in football aren’t going to gravitate to a sport whose stars defy death every week.
While the Olympics are spread out over two weeks, they certainly have the broad appeal and water-cooler topic potential of the Super Bowl. Still, the highest-rated Olympic programming only draws about 1/3 of the audience because no one watches most Olympic sports the other 206 weeks of the quadrennium.
Maybe if the IOC required athletes to compete in the nude as the Greeks did in the ancient Olympics it could gain some ground. Of course, that could be a problem for the winter games, so they’ll just have to arrange for a Harding-Kerrigan-like scandal every four years.
Will anything supplant the Super Bowl as the biggest event in America in the next decade or two? The answer is a resounding No. And, no matter what the shrillest of football’s critics tell you as the controversy around the sport continues to swell, Americans are just fine with that.
Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. His email address email@example.com