Super (Competitive) Society

Super Sunday. Super Tuesday. Super Signing Day.

In America, three events this past week, all national in scope. Events declaring this place — regardless of one’s feelings about the events, themselves, or their situs (America, itself) — a “Super Society”. For those of you unfamiliar with American ways, we are speaking, respectively, of the final professional football game of the year; the largest slate of primary elections to ever be contested in a single day; and the first day a high school football player can declare the college he intends to don a helmet and pads for, thereby serving as four-year grist for their multi-million dollar sporting mill.

And, for those of you unfamiliar with American ways, these are all major cultural events, witnessed by millions on-line, through newspapers, or on radio and television. One event, a culmination, another the weigh-station, a third, the prelude, of significant societal phenomena. Believe it or not, these three events tell us so much about what the United States is — what its preoccupations are, what it stands for, what America means.

A football game. An election. A meat auction.

No kidding.

The football game is an annual rite, of course. It has grown from a relatively unnoticed finale, in 1967, in which only a fifth of those with televisions at the time troubled to witness it, to a grand participatory event, in 2008, which drew the second largest TV rating of all time. Reflecting the popularity, the scope, reach and increased visibility of the game, costs per 30 second advertising spot have risen from $42,000 in the initial contest to $2.7 million last Sunday.

That’s right: $2,700,000. More money — by half — spent in 24 beats of my heart, than I will earn in my entire lifetime.

Forget about how small that proves me to be . . . that is how big an audience the Super Bowl reaches; how big an event Super Sunday is.

In the end it will be remembered for a miraculous hat catch, Tom Petty (& the Heartbreakers)‘s smooth, all-too-brief, workmanlike halftime show, and a slew of lowest-common-denominator ads for beer, chips, e-trading, and delivery services. (More on the ads later).

Tuesday brought a day of voting in primaries for the 2008 presidential nomination of both political parties. It was dubbed “Super Tuesday” because in one day over half (52% for the Democrats) and nearly half (43%, for the Republicans) of the total delegate yield would be selected for the respective parties’ nominating conventions. While Super Tuesday was a ratings dog on TV, it was a monster for the candidates. In less than 48 hours, it led to an infusion of $7 million dollars into the Obama coffers and $4 million into Clinton’s; it also precipitated the exit of Mitt Romney from the Republican race.

The national event generating shockwaves with national effects.

And then came Wednesday.

National signing day may not strike the casual column reader as any great deal, but stop to think about this. According to Sports Business Journal:

College football’s national signing day, set for Wednesday, is projected to generate some of the largest traffic and ad buys of the year for several prominent sports sites., now owned by Yahoo!, last year generated 75 million page views and an estimated 1.5 million unique visitors for national signing day, numbers that could be as much as doubled this year, according to internal projections.

Consider, as well, that ESPNU, the 24-hour national college sports network, dedicated coverage to Super Wednesday. And not simply “coverage”, but SEVEN hours of continuous coverage: from noon to 7 p.m. eastern time. And . . .why would that be? Why all the interest in determining which colored cap an 18 year-old will stick on his head?

Why, indeed?

The jaded among you might guess something like: “because people’s lives are so void of meaning that all they can do to cull value and divert it to fill their fallow souls is to live vicariously through the successes of their chosen teams.” Yeah, you might, could guess something cynical like that. On the other hand, if you went straight for Door Number 2 and simply uttered “money”, you might find safer turf. “Money” and “sport” being synonyms in America.

Indeed, here we edge into the realm of the empirically verifiable; the place where we can observe that college sports is its own cottage industry in the U.S. Its lock on the consciousness of the country’s population translates into a fiefdom in the sport/pop/culture domain for institutions of higher learning, amounting to millions of dollars for any individual school — and billions for the entire constellation of colleges and universities who participate in it. For instance, according to Forbes, the top ranked college football program, Notre Dame, is worth $97 million, “based on what the team contributes to the university’s athletic department for non-football sports ($23.5 million), the University’s academic use ($23.2 million), and the incremental sales to South Bend, Ind., and the surrounding county when the team plays games at Notre Dame Stadium.”

Schools like University of Texas ($88 Million) and University of Georgia ($84 million) are not far behind. Other teams comprising the top ten include: University of Michigan, University of Florida, Ohio State University, University of Alabama, University of Tennessee, University of Oklahoma, and Louisiana State University. In short, all the usual suspects — the teams (with the exception of, say, University of Southern California) that are perennially found among the nation’s top 15 programs.

As for Super Wednesday — big surprise — here were the big winners. All the usual suspects (USC now included).

Well, what does it all mean? Certainly that is obvious. America, a federal republic by design, is today a truly national society. It is united not only by a political constitution, and not only by a multitude of trans-state economic enterprises, but also by cultural events such as football games and popularity contests such as primaries and team-signings that are compelling enough to bind its 301,139,947 residents into a commonly-constrained whole.

If one only look at Super Sunday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, we can also know what engages this whole: competition (and — if the horrendously base, slapstick ads from the Super Bowl are any indication — physical, gender, and moral violence). And if that was not clear enough, all we have to do is ask ourselves what television show was busy beating the primaries out for audience share on Super Tuesday night? According to Roger Catlin, TV critic for the Hartford Courant:

The winner of the night, of course, was Fox, which didn’t bother to have any election results at all. Instead of American candidates, its “American Idol” drew 27.79 million . . .

Leaving us with this conclusion: the moral from Super Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, is that America is one super competitive society.