Unless you’ve been totally mesmerized by Mark Zuckerberg’s overnight transition from dorm-room geek to greedy capitalist, you know that this Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday — the game that’s more than just a game. It’s a time when hyperbole from throughout the land gathers in one spot (this year it’s Indianapolis) to produce the biggest anticlimax of the year. Personally, I love the Super Bowl. I watch it religiously. As a traditionalist, I assemble every, sodium-soaked, sugar-saturated, that-stuff-will-kill-you faux food I can find. I chill the beverages; I clean the TV screen; I realign my bum groove on the sofa. Some years I even send out for pizza. Then I settle in to watch what will always be just an average game because every year the Super Bowl is never as good as the month of playoffs that precede it. It just never is! The real drama is over, and all you have left is hype. Yet, the Super Bowl is still the biggest sporting event in the world. Sure, piles more people watch World Cup and the Tour de France or even some weird cricket championship in India, but that doesn’t matter. The Super Bowl is Numero Uno, the Big Kahuna*. The one everybody talks about. But it wasn’t always that way. It took Michael and Janet Jackson to turn a regular winner-take-all championship game into a worldwide phenomenon where over half the people watching don’t even know the rules.
Here’s a quick and dirty history lesson. Years ago, back when Madonna actually still was a virgin the NFL thought it was the toughest kid on the block. It wasn’t; it was just the only game in town. Regardless, the NFL treated everybody like crap, including their players and the fans, and made tons of money doing it. In America, excess profits breed ruinous competition, so a couple of really rich guys decided to set up their own league and cash in on some of that coin. They organized the AFL, and for seven years, the two leagues spent millions, duking it out for players, fans and television rights. Finally, both sides realized that fighting with each other wasn’t the best way to maximize the bottom line, so, in 1966, they decided to settle their differences and merge. On January 15th, 1967, they held an AFL/NFL championship game which, for want of a better term, they called the Supergame, which almost immediately morphed into the Super Bowl.
In the beginning, the Super Bowl wasn’t actually all that super. It was a championship game but no big deal beyond the domestic fan base – boys to men. There was lots of advertising, but mainly for the regular manly stuff like cars and razorblades and aftershave. The halftime show worked on the college bowl game model: every once in a while a recognizable name, but, in general, Disney kids and marching bands. That was it and it stayed that way until 1993 when Michael Jackson hove up on the horizon.
The mere anticipation of Michael Jackson performing at halftime during Super Bowl XXVII shot the television ratings through the stratosphere. Super Bowl ad time was going for six figures and there wasn’t any available. Everybody and his friend wanted their product front and centre, and they weren’t about to waste that kind of placement on a lame old commercial the audience had seen a thousand times. Unique Super Bowl ads had been around for a couple of years, but Michael turned them into an art form. Nor did he disappoint; Super Bowl XXVII was one of the most watched events in television history.
For the next ten years, the Super Bowl halftime show read like a Who’s Who from Billboard magazine. The actual game shared top billing with the likes of Tony Bennett, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins etc. etc. Even U2 did a solo concert! Plus, the Super Bowl remained one of the few nationwide television events not fractured by the 500 channel universe. The domestic TV audience began reaching for 100 million, and worldwide it went off the charts. Aftershave and razorblades didn’t cut it anymore. Ads became bolder, flashier and funnier as modern Mad Men went after this captive audience. Super Bowl ads became an entity unto themselves; a significant part of the Monday morning conversation. In 2003, The Dixie Chicks sang the National Anthem, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers knocked the snot out of the Raiders 48-21, and Shania Twain and Sting entertained everybody in sight. Market share and ad revenues were the largest in history. All was well with the world.
In 2004, Super Bowl XXXVIII was scheduled to be a complete snorer. New England was clearly a better team than Carolina ever hoped to be. And the halftime show featured Janet Jackson, the aging sister of a spooky superstar, and Justin Timberlake, fresh off a stint as the lead singer of the non-threatening boy band ‘N Sync. However, as Gomer Pyle used to say; “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” Not only did the game turn into one of the best in history, but Janet and Justin put on a bit of a show themselves. Does the term “wardrobe malfunction” mean anything to you? Janet and Justin’s halftime presentation of Janet’s 38-year-old breast scared the bejesus out of the NFL, CBS and the federal government. With one foul swat, those two crazy kids turned the Super Bowl on its ear. Suddenly, one of the gooses that was laying the golden eggs couldn’t be trusted. And if you can’t trust Janet and Justin not to muck up a halftime show, who can you trust? Hip Hop? Rappers? The people down at Super Bowl Central were on the horns of a dilemma: how to keep pulling them in for the halftime show without opening the door to contemporary entertainment. They came up with a brilliant solution – man boobs! They’d get male singers so old they wouldn’t dare take their clothes off!
For the next six years, Super Bowl fans were subjected to some of the greatest names in Geriatric Rock. The list is impressive: from Paul McCartney (who was born two years before D Day) to The Who (where half the original band was already dead.) Even Prince, the youngest of the crowd, was pushing fifty so hard he could see the pension plan from there. Combine that with Springsteen, The Stones and Tom Petty, and it looks like the criteria for employment was what were the kids singing at Super Bowl I? But here’s the deal. It worked! The audience grew. It’s amazing how nostalgia and half-naked Go Daddy ads can prop up an average sporting event.
This year, it’s Tom Brady’s Patriots, by two touchdowns, over Eli Manning’s Giants — the old Boston/New York rivalry. The advertisers are showing previews, just as if their ads were Coming Attractions. A couple of them look decent, although the Avengers went by too fast to notice. Then, at halftime, Madonna will be wailing away like a virgin. Madonna may have been controversial in the past, but chances are good she’ll keep her clothes on. After all, she’s old enough to be most of the player’s m-m-m older sister.
It’s going to be great. I can smell the guacamole already.
*Just to show you what a big deal the Super Bowl is, notice I didn’t mention football once.