The game, of course, is an afterthought. Unless you were among the diehard fans of either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Oakland Raiders, or simply starved for one last serving of pro football, the contest that was Super Bowl XXXVII, like most Super Bowls before it, paled before the unadulterated mania that makes the Super Bowl so much more than two football teams going at it on the field. It’s nothing short of a Cultural Event.
This year, the televised pre-game analysis ran a full four hours in length, longer—barring the mammoth halftime show—than the game itself. And that’s not counting the week that led up to this display. The strengths and weaknesses of both teams were broken down repeatedly, predictions were tossed about with rabid abandon, and speculation about individual match-ups and coaching moves piled up. Personal vignettes were run and rerun, as backlit interviews with the participants attempted to play up the “human interest” side of the story.
And when every aspect of the game and its players had been examined, the media turned on itself. The coverage was covered on what has come to be called “Media Day”—the Wednesday before Super Sunday, when reporters are given access to all the players en masse, but inevitably file stories about the vast numbers of their colleagues in attendance. In addition to all this, exposés about the seedier side of the game popped up on HBO’s Real Sports, emphasizing the rampant gambling, boozing, and prostitution that accompany the traveling carnival of Super Bowl festivities each year to the game’s host city.
To be fair, this exhaustive (and exhausting) coverage may have seemed more intense this year, because only a week separated the conference championships and the big game. Typically, two full weeks are allotted in order to accommodate the tremendous swell of coverage that leads up to the game. The NFL has since declared its intentions to return to the two-week format next year, though it could be argued that this will only allow more time for the hype to build (as it has in the past), rather than spreading out the surfeit of attention.
All of this, however, is not to complain about the disappointment that inevitably results from the massive pre-game hoopla. Neither is it to rail against “the media” as the underlying cause of yet another of the world’s problems. The Super Bowl fits its name precisely: super-sized, super-hyped, and super-saturated with attention. As the biggest game in the biggest sport in America, it’s located at a particular crossroads of U.S. culture, where spectacle, consumption, and nationalistic fervor are celebrated on a level rarely seen elsewhere.
First and foremost, the Super Bowl is meant to impress visually. For a football game, this might ordinarily go without saying, but the trappings push the basic concept to spectacular new levels. Gargantuan inflated football figures decorate the field before the game, specially enhanced graphics blaze across the screen to introduce the show’s various segments, fireworks surround the stadium before and after the game, and cannons of confetti litter the field once the game clock expires. Add this year’s performances by Santana (in which cheerleaders spelled out his name on the field), Beyoncé Knowles, Celine Dion, the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain (who was lifted into the air during her halftime performance on a mechanical platform), No Doubt with Sting, and Bon Jovi, and the result is something that resembles a cross between the 4th of July and the American Music Awards.
Not that music performances and fireworks aren’t a part of regular football games, but in a country proud of its of two and a half ton SUVs, 80-foot IMAX movie screens, and super-sized food meals, the grandiose scale of the Super Bowl is a celebration of the maximum.
The same could be said for the commercials that air during the game. Each year, reporters discuss the “outrageous” costs of advertising time (this year, sixty-one 30-second spots went for more than $2 million each), though this outrage is inevitably mixed with anticipation. The ads themselves have become a focal point of the Super Bowl, garnering as much post game commentary and analysis as the game does. Budweiser’s frogs (“Bud”...“Weis”...“Er”) and Pepsi’s Britney Spears spots are just two of the much-hyped marketing campaigns that have used the Super Bowl as a launching platform. The attention garnered by these Super Ads, and the various commentaries that follow, wed the game’s size-fetish to admonitions to buy, buy, buy, scaled like so many miniature movies.
This year, the Super Bowl presented an interesting synergy with its ads, as Celine Dion, who could be seen hawking Chryslers during the game’s intermissions, introduced the game in person by singing “God Bless America.” Her performance bolstered the patriotic grandstanding, as it led to the National Anthem (a fixture at all sporting events), sung by the Dixie Chicks in three-part harmony. Dion’s “God Bless America” multiplied the patriotic mood, however (and isn’t she Canadian?), heightened by the presence of active and retired military personnel. While an Air Force flyover roared overheard, uniformed men and women were displayed on the field before the kickoff. As the country perches on the brink of war, these military overtures recalled Whitney Houston’s celebrated rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, when the country was fully immersed in the last Persian Gulf War.
It’s true that red, white, and blue have become increasingly fashionable post-9/11. The Super Bowl’s super revelry only magnifies this trend. During the halftime performance of last year’s Super Bowl, U2’s Bono sported stars and stripes on the inside of his jacket in a memorable tribute to the World Trade Center victims.
The 2003 Super Bowl, however, was far removed from last year’s pervading sense of victimization. War and revenge are now more the focus of national discussion than grief and remembrance, though the Super Bowl still remains the premiere staging ground to celebrate the U.S. of A. in a torrent of sequins and pom-poms. As in 1991, this year’s Super Bowl was a massive wartime pep rally, cheering not only the players on the field, but the soldiers in the Gulf and elsewhere.
To be certain, this rally was well attended. In addition to the 80,000 or so in the stands, nearly 89 million viewers were calculated to have watched the game on TV. What these millions saw was magnified spectacle—dedicated to unabashed capitalism and “patriotic” flag-waving. It exemplified the star-spangled ethos of a nation, glossed over and wrapped up in a monumental production. And while the game may have a hard time living up to its billing, it’s clear that the pageant that surrounds it and the national attention that it draws will always live up to the “Super” moniker.