More than any other sporting event in America, the Super Bowl has truly become a cultural phenomenon. According to 1999 National Football League figures, more than 138 million people in the United States alone watched the Super Bowl, with over 750 million total Super Bowl viewers in 187 countries. The Super Bowl has become, according to writer Michael Real (as quoted in Dona Schwartz's Contesting the Super Bowl), a "mythic spectacle," that "in the classical manner of mythical beliefs and ritual activities… is a communal celebration of and indoctrination into specific socially dominant emotions, life-styles, and values." The Super Bowl brings together several institutions: sports, television, advertising, and the American corporate culture. The Super Bowl serves as an end-of-the-season celebration, glorifying revenues accumulated by team owners, advertisers, media outlets, and many other businesses that share in the tremendous profits generated by professional football.
The Super Bowl itself stems from a fierce rivalry between two football leagues. In 1960, the upstart American Football League (AFL) challenged the popular and well-established National Football League (NFL). The AFL was well funded and soon began to contest the NFL in a bidding war for college players. In 1965, the AFL scored its first major coup when the New York Jets signed University of Alabama star quarterback Joe Namath. Namath's personality, media appeal, and on-field success gave the AFL an early degree of legitimacy. The AFL was also helped by a television contract. Under an exclusive deal with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), each AFL team was paid $150,000, money that kept the league afloat during the difficult, early years of its existence.
In 1966, the AFL decided to further assert itself by attempting to sign established, veteran NFL players. When several of its stars signed lucrative contracts, the NFL found it had little choice but to accept the situation and started working on a merger of the two leagues. In June 1966, an NFL-AFL merger was announced. The merger called for a common draft of college players and a championship game—the Super Bowl—to start in 1967. The new league would be called the National Football League with the previous rivals split into two divisions: the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The full merger would take place in 1970. The Super Bowl pitted the winners of the two conferences in one game in late January, following the regular season and a series of playoff games.
During the first few years of the new National Football League, the two conferences maintained separate identities and schedules. Initially then, the Super Bowl became a contest where the upstart AFL would try to prove its meddle against more established teams. As might be expected, in the first two Super Bowls (Super Bowls I and II), the NFL Green Bay Packers easily defeated their AFL opponents.
Most believed it would take years before an AFL team would actually win a Super Bowl. Then in Super Bowl III, the AFL champion New York Jets were matched against the powerful Baltimore Colts. Jets quarterback "Broadway Joe" Namath, on the eve of the contest in which the Colts were heavily favored, "guaranteed" a Jets victory. On January 12, 1969, the Jets stunned the sports world by defeating the Colts 16-7. The Jets victory finally gave the AFL its due and helped bring the two leagues together when the merger officially began the next year.
Enhancing the merger of the two leagues in 1970 was a television package from ABC. For just over $8 million each season, ABC agreed to televise thirteen prime-time games on Monday nights. Television revenues for the NFL totaled nearly $150 million. Overall, it meant that each of the twenty-six NFL teams in 1970 would receive about $1.7 million. The popularity of football stemmed primarily from its television exposure. During the 1970s, television transformed football into America's premier spectator sport. Before the 1973 season, Congress lifted TV blackouts on home games that were not sold out. While some predicted that this legislation would make it hard for some small market teams to fill the stands, that did not prove to be the case. Not only did TV viewing increase, but teams actually sold more tickets. And it was TV contracts that became the meal ticket for the NFL—not single game sales. In 1978, the NFL signed the most lucrative sports TV contract ever. In January of that year, a Lou Harris poll found that 70 percent of the nation's sports fans followed football, compared to 54 percent who followed baseball.
With the help of television, over the past three decades the game on the field has become just an ancillary part of the entire Super Bowl experience. More than anything else however, the Super Bowl is about money and corporate advertising. This January spectacle is the most lucrative sporting event in the United States and has become as much an advertising contest as a sports production. The NFL sold the broadcast rights for the 1999 Super Bowl for over $60 million and NFL properties, the licensing arm of the league, sells approximately $200 million in merchandise for the game. At the Super Bowl itself, logo placement, advertising angles, and television commercials have taken on more importance than the outcome of the game. In fact, television commercials slated for the Super Bowl are often shown as news items on local broadcasts days before the game. There are even postgame telecasts that examine and evaluate the quality of Super Bowl commercials.
To demonstrate the serious connection between advertising and the Super Bowl, one need look no further than Anheuser-Busch's "Bud Bowl," which has been a part of Super Bowl television broadcasts since 1989. The Bud Bowl is a fictitious football game, played out in expensive commercial spots, between animated beer bottles of Budweiser and Budweiser Light. The Bud Bowl employs real announcers and millions of dollars are spent to show these beer bottles running up and down the field attempting to score touch-downs. But the key to the Bud Bowl is Anheuser-Busch's promotions, which begin months before the game itself at hundreds of retail outlets. The beer company offers thousands of prizes that are tied into these advertising spots at the Super Bowl. Because of the advertising and prize giveaways, the final score of the Bud Bowl has become more important to the American television viewer than the results of the Super Bowl. Anheuser-Busch even set up a toll free number so potential prize winners could call and find out the final score of the Bud Bowl.
By 1999, 30-second Super Bowl advertising spots were selling for well over $1 million. Yet the evidence indicates that those sums are well worth the price for American corporate advertisers. In 1991, the Gillette Company used the Super Bowl to introduce its new Sensor razor. Gillette spent over $3 million on Super Bowl advertising to reach their male audience. By focusing its ads on Super Bowl Sunday, Gillette sold out its Sensor inventory through February and March following the broadcast, and the company was able to increase its market share by 35 percent in 1991. Evidence gathered by writer Phil Schaaf for his book Sports Marketing indicated that 66 percent of people tested recall Super Bowl commercials.
Money and corporate infiltration of the Super Bowl has also influenced the type of fans that attend the January event. In a sport that caters to the "average" fan during the regular season, few of those ordinary team boosters will ever have the opportunity to see a Super Bowl. Tickets are not sold to the general public—most go to corporate sponsors, celebrities, National Football League owners and officials, other players, and news organizations. In fact, during Super Bowl XXIX, 646 news organizations and 407 international media representatives were given Super Bowl credentials. The number of journalists working at the Super Bowl for these newsgroups totaled 2846. An actual statistical breakdown of fans who attends a Super Bowl shows the following: 35 percent attend on corporate expense accounts; 33 percent earn more than $100,000 annually; 27 percent own their own company; 25 percent are corporate officers; and 22 percent sit on corporate boards of directors. So the look of a Super Bowl is far different from the look of a football game on a regular Sunday in October or November.
But a Super Bowl does brings in a great deal of money to a host city. It is estimated that the Phoenix metropolitan area brought in $187 million when it hosted the Super Bowl. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the 1991 Super Bowl, 2,000 jobs were created for that event. All but the first Super Bowl has been a sellout, even though the cheapest tickets at the 1999 game sold for just over $250. Scalpers, or illegal ticket brokers, generally get four times that much for a Super Bowl ticket. Tim Green, a former professional football player, wrote in his book The Dark Side of the Game that, "January is when the big money really starts to drop." Green is referring to the legal and illegal betting that accompanies the Super Bowl. The game is the most gambled on sporting event in the United States. A person can lay a wager on just about any facet of the game: the first quarter score, which team will score first, which running back will get the most yards, the total score, or how many yards a particular quarterback will throw for. Between $35 and $60 million in legal gambling goes on for each Super Bowl game—illegal estimates are much higher.
Since television and media coverage dominates the Super Bowl, it is inevitable that politics has entered the formula. The Super Bowl is the most watched one-day event in the world. There is no worry about a rain-out and viewers represent a wide demographic range (41 percent of all American television viewers are female). The Super Bowl is also the third biggest eating day in America—behind only Christmas and Thanksgiving. In 1993, several national women's groups announced that Super Bowl Sunday was the worst day of the year for violence against women. Women's shelters claimed that hot lines were "flooded with more calls from victims [on Super Bowl Sunday] than any other day of the year." And a study was released by Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, which showed that hospital admissions of women rose after games won by the Washington Redskins. While many subsequently questioned the links between domestic violence and the Super Bowl, the women's groups had scored a public relations coup by releasing their finding just before the Super Bowl, when national and world media attention was so focused upon that event. But additional evidence showed that the Super Bowl brings out the worst in American sports fans. After Denver won its second consecutive Super Bowl in 1999, rowdy fans rioted in that city, overturning cars, breaking windows, and starting fires. One sports psychologist determined that testosterone levels of young males rose by 20 percent when their team won a big game. During the 1992 game between the Buffalo Bills and the Washington Redskins, American Indian groups used the Super Bowl media glare to call attention to what they believed were racist and demeaning use of nicknames and mascots on professional sports teams. The Redskin team nickname was considered especially egregious to the American Indian Movement (AIM) and protestors ringed the stadium on Super Bowl Sunday chanting slogans to voice their cause. Because of the media saturation in town for the Super Bowl, the American Indian Movement appeared on television and were interviewed for national and international media outlets. While nothing came of the protests, AIM was able to get their message out and even forced the National Football League to issue a statement about the team nicknames.
The Super Bowl has offered the American sports fan a plethora of heroic players and exciting teams: Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, John Elway, the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers. But player statistics and heroics have become overshadowed by economic, social, and cultural issues: Who will sing the national anthem? Who will perform at the half-time festivities? What television commercials will catch the attention of the American public? What political issues might arise this year? And, what is the betting line on the game? These issues have turned the Super Bowl into more of a media event than a sporting contest.
—David E. Woodard
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