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Insights: Sports

America's Party After 35 years, the Super Bowl isn't just a football game but a national holiday
Dave Anderson
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

Of course you love the Super Bowl, but have you ever stopped to wonder why?

It's not so much pro football's big game as it is a national holiday, held in the midst of winter when most of the population is indoors. Super Bowl Sunday should be listed on calendars as Party Day -- drinks and munchies and cigars for everybody.

The September 11 terrorist attacks prompted the National Football League to seek "special event status" in requesting federal security at this year's party in the Louisiana Superdome, but to join the party, you don't need a ticket to the game or need to go to where it's being played. Just plan a party at your home or at someone else's home. Or go to a restaurant or a bar. Or anywhere with a TV set.

Hey, Sunday is another reason why you love the Super Bowl. Most people are free to party on Super Bowl Sunday, especially when they know weeks ahead exactly when and where the game will be played. The dates and locations of Super Bowl Sunday are set in stone, or at least in artificial turf, through February 5, 2006, Ford Field, Detroit.

During the season, pro football thrives on tailgate parties at all its stadiums. Super Bowl Sunday is simply a coast-to-coast extension of all those tailgate parties.

As popular as other sports are, there's no World Series Sunday or NBA Tuesday or Stanley Cup Saturday, because nobody knows when the decisive game will be played. Yes, you can plan ahead for the fixed dates of the Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, college basketball's title game and college football's biggest bowl game, the final round of the Masters and the U.S. Open, and the title matches in the U.S. Open tennis championships, but all the hoopla of the Super Bowl isn't present at those events.

The TV numbers prove the Super Bowl's popularity. Of the top 15 all-time programs, eight are Super Bowls. Of the top 10 all-time sports programs, nine are Super Bowls. No wonder TV advertisers premiere their new commercials that Sunday; the 30-second price on Fox has been projected at about $2.2 million for this year's game, the same rate that CBS got last year.

The game itself is always a sellout. Even with all tickets now selling for $400, nearly 72,000 will attend this season's showdown at the Superdome; thousands more will be in New Orleans. When the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX there in 1986, some 30,000 Bears fans roamed Bourbon Street without a game ticket. Some arrived without an airline ticket or a hotel room; they slept, if they slept, on the railroad trains that brought them to and fro. Some people without a ticket go to the game but never go into the stadium.

"I go to the Super Bowl every year," one middle-aged male fan confesses. "I get two six-packs, find somebody in the parking lot hooked up to a 19-inch TV, and watch the game there."

For others, the game is a backdrop for mixing up close and personal with hundreds of NFL players (each can purchase two tickets). Some are hired to entertain corporate guests, many are there just to party. And then there are the rich and famous in the stands.

"My mother, Janet, went to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1982 when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl," says Jim Steeg, the NFL vice president who supervises the Super Bowl logistics. "But all she's ever talked about is that she sat two rows behind Ethel Kennedy."

To die-hard pro football fans, the game is the thing. And to the players, the ring is the thing.

Before Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa, Florida, Russ Grimm, one of the Hogs on the Washington Redskins offensive line, told reporters, "I'd run over my mother to win it." Told of Grimm's remark, Matt Millen, then an Oakland Raiders linebacker and now the Detroit Lions general manager, said, "I'd run over Grimm's mother, too."

But to many people, the Super Bowl is much more than a game. My teenage granddaughter Chrissie once asked her father, "Daddy, can I go to the Super Bowl? I want to see the halftime show." To any serious pro football fan, that's no reason to go to the Super Bowl, but the halftime show is part of the attraction.

In Tempe, Arizona, in 1996, Diana Ross, after finishing her halftime songs, was airlifted by helicopter out of Sun Devil Stadium. "As they took her up in a harness," Steeg says, "I kept thinking, 'Get her up above the top wall of the stadium. ' "

They did. Another scary moment occurred at Super Bowl IV's halftime show. To re-create the Battle of New Orleans, when Gen. Andrew Jackson's army defeated the British in the War of 18l2, the show had cavalry prancing. But on hearing soldiers firing blanks from their muskets and cannons booming, the horses reared. Some riders got flipped onto the grass of Tulane Stadium, where the Kansas City Chiefs soon stunned the favored Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.

"The next day," remembers Don Weiss, the retired NFL executive director who organized the early Super Bowls, "Pete Rozelle told us, 'More people watched our game than watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon last summer.'"

As the NFL commissioner, Rozelle shaped the Super Bowl's stature. He decided not only that the "world professional football championship" game should be played at a neutral site, he also decreed that there be a two-week interval to hype the game.

When the Green Bay Packers, under Coach Vince Lombardi, decisively defeated the Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders, the NFL appeared so superior to the young American Football League in the first two Super Bowls that some feared for the future of the game. But when the New York Jets fulfilled quarterback Joe Namath's "guarantee" with a 16-7 upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, it justified the hype.

"The next day," remembers Weiss. "Pete told us, 'This gives us a great kick-start for the merger.'"

After the 1970 merger realignment into the National and American conferences, Jim O'Brien's 32-yard field goal for the Colts provided a 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, the first time that Roman numerals were officially used to identify the game. Roman numerals I to IV were added later to the first four games. By then, "Super Bowl" had been accepted as the official name.

When the club owners met to decide what to call the first game, Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs owner, remembered how his daughter Sharon had bounced a small red-white-and-blue rubber ball over the roof of their Dallas home into their backyard. When he asked about it, she said, "It's a Super Ball. That's its name, Daddy, Super Ball." Hunt then suggested that the game be called the Super Bowl, a takeoff on the college bowl games. Although the term "Super Bowl" was not officially adopted right away, the Super Bowl, by any other name, has always been the Super Bowl.

At Super Bowl VI in New Orleans, the corporate invasion began. Huge groups of Ford and Chrysler executives and salesmen arrived. And the NFL's Friday night party kept getting more and more popular. So much so that the Super Bowl VII party on the Queen Mary was a disaster. Docked at a Long Beach, California, pier, the ocean liner wasn't anywhere big enough to handle 4,000 guests. Many ate sitting on the narrow floors between the cabins.

The next year in Houston, the NFL party was at the Astrodome, big enough to easily accommodate 15,000 fans as well as a few steer and horses.

This year, in a bow to the terrorist attacks, the NFL won't throw its usual Friday night party. Instead, CBS will air a two-hour special at the New Orleans Arena with 8,000 people in attendance. The week will also include the NFL Experience (a football-related theme park), the Super Bowl Golf Classic, various NFL-sanctioned events and dozens of corporate parties. Sales of NFL merchandise with the Super Bowl logo are expected to total $100 million; 50 companies have been authorized to produce products for at-home parties.

Because of you, you and you, there are more at-home Super Bowl Sunday parties than there are at-home New Year's Eve parties.

Think of the thousands and thousands of pizzas eaten that Sunday. Think of the estimated 14,500 tons of chips and dips that are purchased for those parties, including some 8 million pounds of guacamole. But the Super Bowl party doesn't appeal to everyone. One year when the Raiders lost the AFC championship game, Al Davis was asked if he were going to the Super Bowl anyway.

"No," he said. "I don't like parties."

Maybe the Raiders' major domo knew that the day after the Super Bowl, sales of antacids reportedly increases by 20 percent.

 

Dave Anderson is a Pulitzer Prize - winning sports columnist for The New York Times.

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