Prince of the Ball

In the Elysian fields of commercialism lies Super Bowl Sunday, a media event nonpareil whose pomp and circumstance grow each year like an unchecked weed. This is the Day of Days, the Greatest Show on Turf, and a dozen other bloated taglines. It’s a grand charade that forges a spectacle of sport, theater, and celebrity, without equal. Superlatives abound, expectations raised, and the presentation is nearly Roman in its grandeur.

Those of us who eat and drink football can’t wait for the afternoon we finally get to share our affliction with the rest of the country. Even without my beloved Patriots, I eagerly tuned in to watch the sensory juggernaut that is Super Bowl XLI. And unlike the three hours of abject terror that usually accompany me as I hang on every New England play from scrimmage — my hands pruned from sweat — I might actually enjoy this game. Who doesn’t want to see a monster defenseman named Booger McFarland try to murder little Rex Grossman?

Even folks who greet the day with jeers will be inexorably drawn to its cacophony of bells, whistles, and flashing lights. Where else can one find an American institution’s signature game, juxtaposed with 2007’s most hyped ad space? Such prime placement is the very barometer of hip-ness. Super Sunday provides the runway for road testing Madison Avenue’s pet creations. Some commercials will be like J Lo’s infamous Oscar dress: sexy, bold, and seminal. Others will launch new icons (remember the first time you saw’s loveable, corporate monkeys?). And more than a few will fail, at the outrageous cost of $2.6 million a clip. Even if the game disappoints, we’ll have these priceless memories to cherish in perpetuity (who can forget

Terry Tate: Office Linebacker?).

Take for instance one of the evening’s best spots, where David Letterman sheepishly teases Oprah that “Even though you like the Bears and I like the Colts, it’s okay, cuz we’re in love.” That little bit of nudge-nudge sells more personality than product (and was likely lost on many Americans who find neither talk show host particularly relevant these days). Still, it was an amusing jibe, and must have been one hell of a marketing pitch.

Shameless self-promotion notwithstanding, SBXLI has a legitimacy the sport hasn’t enjoyed in some time: both Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy are the first black head coaches in history to make it to the Super Bowl. If that doesn’t force a double take, it should. Black athletes like Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith have dominated the gridiron for decades, captivating us with their power and grace. But none until now have ascended to the game’s highest position as a supremely successful coach, the undisputed captain who leads his team into the fire and — with any luck — out the other side to glory.

Unfortunately, the country (or, more specifically, its media) is preoccupied with an adolescent obsession over Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Number 18 wears a Colts jersey but plays for all of us, it would seem. The widely revered son-of-Archie is a national archetype and heir apparent. His numbers are staggering, his audible style unmistakable, and pundits devote great wells of ink to the Manning legacy. While his relentless quest for a ring is admirable, the media has long positioned Peyton as the Messiah, uncharacteristically united in their worship. It’s all a bit much.

Coming off an exceptional performance at the AFC Championship game (where he finally shook the heartbreaking Pats off his back, in reciprocal form), Manning was all but conferred the award for Man of the Year. He’d exorcized the demon. And while not the league’s most articulate quarterback (“I call [tight end Bryan Fletcher] Mr. Suggestion, cuz he’s always making suggestions in the huddle”) Manning was undoubtedly the belle of this year’s ball. Pre-game footage of a young Peyton, all of three feet tall in pads, was endearing, and almost felt staged for this very moment. Manning, after all, is a metaphor: the great American hero we all aspire to be, a golden child whose goofy smile makes people laugh, whose valor gives them hope.

Prince performs at halftime during Super Bowl XLI in Miami,
Florida, on Sunday, February 4, 2007.
(Andrew Innarity/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

Poor Chicago never had a chance. With all due respect to “Da Bears”, we’re a long way from Jim McMahon and the Super Bowl Shuffle. Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher anchors a heralded Windy City defense, but in the prime time forum he’s better known for deodorant commercials than for inspiring a championship. Nobody outside Illinois wanted to see this team win. Don’t believe me? It’s a sure sign the media’s playing favorites when Bears quarterback Rex Grossman gets less screen time than Kevin Federline.

Still, in all this kinetic frenzy, it’s impossible to dwell on any one thing. Viewers are soon drawn to the American commercial machine like bears to a honeycomb. Flush with merchandising tie-ins (“Visit the CBS Sports Store for all your favorite team gear!”), sponsorships sprang from the gate like thoroughbreds: the State Farm Pre-game Show; the Pepsi Halftime Show; GMC’s Keys to Victory (for Dummies); and, of course, aerial blimp shots brought to you by Budweiser: the only beer to drink when you’re flying a six ton, gas-inflated airship. The corporate whoring knew no bounds. Even the unimpeachable Katie Couric hung her soul out to dry, with an outlandishly mussed, primetime hairdo that screamed for a fire hose.

Now, taking over American television doesn’t come cheap, but ubiquitous branding can make it happen. Just look at the star-studded ad for NFL Total Access. From Martha Stewart to David Beckham to Janet Reno (who says there’s no second act in American life?), the commercial’s very roster vividly illustrates the kind of kitchen-sink pluralism expected on Super Sunday.

With advertising real estate peaking at $87,000 a second, only the big dogs come to play on Super Sunday. You get market giants like Coke, Anheuser Busch, and Chevy peddling their wares, as well as the occasional frisky start-up. It’s difficult to calculate, without some mad science, the return on investment these companies hope to achieve. But one might expect a company like Ford, which just posted its biggest loss in a century ($12.7 billion dollars last year), to rein in its truck ads. Nope. I counted 15 spots in four quarters. Detroit seems hell-bent on selling suburbanites their industrial-sized vehicles no matter what. Forget that little Prius, silly rabbit; you’re buying a Ford Superduty… and you don’t even know it yet.

From the bizarre (Garmin’s fighting monsters) to the unsophisticated (was Salesgenie’s boilerplate crap for real?), there was a surfeit of spectacular flops. The Sierra Mist rejects continue to wallow in bad sketch comedy, while Sheryl Crow’s Revlon spot was just miserable. On the other hand, Bud Light continued their bid for ‘smartest kids in the boardroom’, by selecting short, funny skits (the Wedding Auction) that resonate with an established image without getting in its own way (unlike Godaddy, which tries way too hard). According to the tracking site Adbowl, Bud’s Rocks, Paper, Scissors spot took first place for the evening.

Back on the field, Gloria Estefan and Cirque du Soleil unveiled a gaudy opening set that would have made Julie Taymor blush, but the real surprise was Billy Joel, whose solemn rendition of the Star Spangled Banner was almost entirely off-key. Hopefully, ASL ambassador Marlee Matlin improvised liberally.

Still, if Peyton was the belle of the ball, then the scepter belonged to Prince. Thank American Idol for inspiring the greatest halftime booking since that other King of Pop took the stage 14 years ago. His Purpleness resurfaced from self-imposed exile with a surprise appearance on last year’s American Idol finalé and (again) cemented his place atop the list of platinum entertainers.

Prince is simply incandescent, as he proved convincingly in the pouring halftime rain. A diminutive sex symbol with a catalog of pop singles and a frightening ability to shred, the Minneapolis rocker is publicly dangerous, but a private perfectionist. When His Majesty stood silhouetted against a billowing, yellow sheet, his phallic glyph guitar lunging into shadow, it was a bold display of virility that had many (including execs at Viagra, no doubt) shaking their heads in awe. I wanted to fly to Miami and hand him the MVP trophy myself. It’s a two-point game and Prince just blew the place up. I turned to my wife and checked her pulse. The night had reached its apex.

Sadly, when the teams retook the field for Act II, it felt like a preseason game. Sloppy and anticlimactic, its final score (29-17) was hardly indicative of the abattoir that ensued. It was a patient, collaborative Manning, backed by the Colts physical defense that led the team to victory. And yet, the Most Valuable Player could have easily been the incessant Florida rain. With many of the on-field lenses blurred by raindrops, there was a distinct soft focus effect (not as sexy as it sounds) and CBS struggled to find a clean camera. If it’s distracting at home, imagine spending $4,000 a ticket to sit in a soaked, bucket seat and watch bad football. I don’t care if you’re sandwiched between Ashton and Demi, that’s a pretty shitty date.

While I texted Bears fans mercilessly about Grossman and the Biblical flood, the geeks at Izod tried reinventing themselves with ads that featured models necking to club beats. (I’m still not buying a polo.) We also watched Blockbuster drive the first nail into good-guy Netflix with their new Total Access package (adding insult to injury, their pandering, Pixar-esque mouse-over commercial ranked #2 in audience polls). And it was impossible to miss the American Heart Association’s ghastly ads, whose salubrious buzz kill was relentless. For the love of all that is holy, let me eat my cheese steak in peace!

Like the rest of the night’s high profile losers, the Bears’ 15 minutes came and went with a whimper. In the end, our man Peyton’s inadequacies were finally laid to rest, and Mr. Fabulous was bronzed for Canton. So it is written, so it shall be done. The pageantry seduces, the ads penetrate, and the game disappoints — just another night at the Super Bowl. At least Brett Favre doesn’t have heartburn anymore. Thanks, Prilosec!