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In the United States, the game is only one part of the party

By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Each year, on a Sunday at the end of January or beginning of February, tens of millions of Americans declare their own unofficial holiday. Gathered in groups large and small, more than half the adult population participates vicariously in a televised spectacle that has far outgrown its origins as a sporting event.

The Super Bowl, which determines the championship of American football, is most of all a shared experience. In a nation where the individual so often does his or her "own thing," Americans disproportionately choose to spend this day in the company of friends. For some, the game is the reason, while others enjoy the pageantry that accompanies the game, advertisers’ efforts to gain attention or simply the company of old friends and new.

Neither the hugely popular Major League Baseball World Series nor the National Basketball Association championship commands so intense a grip on the nation’s attention. Possibly this is because the Super Bowl is a single game, a winner-take-all contest rather than a four-out-of-seven game series. This factor, and also the entertainments that have sprung up around the game, make Super Bowl Sunday an event even for those who are not football fans.


American football, which requires teams to run, throw and kick an oval ball across a 100-yard field (91.4 meters), is unrelated to the game most of the world knows by that name, and which Americans call soccer. And even the American game has variants, as there are slightly different rules for the versions played by college teams, professional teams and Canadian Football League teams.

For some of its history, professional American football was played within a single National Football League (NFL), although rival leagues did spring up as the game grew in popularity and the lure of television dollars emboldened competitors. In 1960, one such rival league, the American Football League (AFL) competed for premier talent. As the leagues contemplated a merger, they agreed to a single game each year between their respective champions. Because many collegiate football championships were known as "bowls" for the bowl-shaped stadiums that hosted them, one AFL owner referred to the new game as a "super" bowl. The name proved popular with the public.

The NFL champion Green Bay Packers decisively won the first two Super Bowls, played in January 1967 and January 1968; AFL representatives triumphed the next two years, establishing in the minds of many the quality of the AFL and propelling its absorption into its more established rival. Since Super Bowl V (1971), the Super Bowl has determined the NFL champion, pitting the champions of its American and National "Conferences."


While most U.S. sports championships are determined in the home cities of the respective contestants, a Super Bowl -- as with the Olympics and the World Cup -- is awarded to a city some three years to five years in advance, opening the door to broad marketing and promotional opportunities. Because the game is played in winter, it also affords warm cities like New Orleans (host to nine Super Bowls), Miami (eight Super Bowls) and Los Angeles (seven Super Bowls in the metropolitan area) a substantial advantage. Occasionally a northern city with an indoor stadium will host a Super Bowl, as will Detroit on February 5 at Ford Field, a $500 million domed stadium completed in 2002.

A Super Bowl generates substantial economic activity within its host city. Many ticket holders, media representatives and others arrive a week before the game, exploring the area and spending freely. Detroit expects local businesses will net a stunning $300 million in additional activity.

Hotels and restaurants are among the most obvious beneficiaries, but the Detroit Free-Press reports that even area museums expect a spike in visitors and revenue.


As a television event the Super Bowl stands out: an estimated 130 million to 140 million viewers — nearly half of the U.S. population — will tune in to some part of the game. Four of the 10 most watched programs in U.S. history have been Super Bowls.

Americans increasingly have gathered in private Super Bowl parties, where they enjoy food, drink and televised football. The game is always played on a Sunday, when Americans are not likely to be at work. U.S. football teams also are likely to enjoy a national following. Because of the event’s national prominence, even Americans who are not football fans might adopt a team just for Super Bowl Sunday.

Another key to the Super Bowl’s success as a social event is the carefully choreographed entertainment events that surround the game itself. The "halftime show," musical and other entertainment offered by major stars, takes place on the field during the mid-game rest period. In 2006, performers will include the Rolling Stones; 2005 performers included Paul McCartney.

At many Super Bowl parties, some will focus on the television most intently when the players are off the field. The object of their scrutiny? The commercials! Given the huge audience, advertisers long have been willing to pay huge premiums to parade their wares on the Super Bowl broadcast. In 2005, a 30-second ad cost some $2.4 million.

With airtime so expensive, advertisers compete to display their most creative efforts, and introduce their newest products, on the Super Bowl broadcast. Much anticipated for 2006 is the first national bilingual (English-Spanish) advertisement. In recent years, a great deal of time is spent in the days following the game evaluating the various commercials, although typically there is a humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone to those analyses.

Although serious football fans would disagree, Super Bowl Sunday, for millions of Americans, is less about which team prevails than it is about fun. For Super Bowl XL, the Pittsburgh Steelers are favored over the Seattle Seahawks by four points. Whether at the stadium, elsewhere in the host city, or with friends in front of the television, most Americans find something to enjoy February 5 on this unofficial national holiday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who plans to attend the Super Bowl in Detroit, is an avid fan who says she’s “never missed a Super Bowl” and has been watching football regularly since she was about three or four years old. “Any given Sunday, that's where you'll find me,” she said in a July 2005 interview.

During the 2005 Super Bowl, Rice was on travel in Israel and despite the time difference she said she woke up at 3 a.m. for the start of the game, known as the kickoff.

“Watched the kickoff, left the game on, slept on and off, woke up at about the third quarter, checked the score. Woke up just in time to see the Philadelphia drive that brought them within a touchdown. … That was great and then watched to the end,” Rice said.

February 4, 2006


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Updated: May 2006