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Super Bowl Becoming More About Spectacle Than Football

February 16, 2015

For the second time in three years, the NFL had a grand finale worthy of the name Super Bowl, which served as a nice lead in for those already wondering what the league will do for its 50th anniversary party in February 2016. And to be honest, it’s kind of scary to think about.

If you think the game has already become a subplot, what will it be like celebrating a half century’s worth of extravagance? The spectacle has virtually become a national holiday that already overshadows the game itself. The NFL might not prefer it that way, but would have a hard time denying it.

Let’s face it; the Super Bowl is the most-watched TV show every year, which automatically makes it the most-watched sporting event. Yet a questionable play call that might have cost the Seattle Seahawks a chance to win back-to-back titles didn’t seem to get nearly as much postgame coverage as the halftime show or the commercials, at least in my opinion.

And that isn’t all that surprising. It is estimated the New England Patriots’ 28-24 win against Seattle drew a TV audience of about 114 million. Those who calculate the effects of advertising estimate as many as half of those watching are doing so for the halftime show -- and to gauge the impact of the commercials.

The day after the Patriots survived the Seahawks’ last-minute threat, USA Today devoted two full pages to Super Bowl commercials, past and present, complete with the cost and what the dominating sponsors spend during the course of the four-hour telecast. And then, there was the review of the halftime show, featuring Katy Perry and hundreds of her closest friends.

The halftime show has become such a big selling point that the NFL, in what might be considered the height of arrogance, actually considered asking performers to up the ante for the right to perform on TV’s biggest stage. Perry said she put her foot down on that idea, and even though she basically worked gratis, the NFL did shell out for production costs for the show -- said to be several million dollars.

Here’s where I go all Buck Showalter and fall into the “old fuddy-duddy” category and wonder: Why does the world’s so-called greatest single sporting event need a halftime show that often seems to get top billing, especially when it can drastically affect those playing the game? Perry was on stage during halftime for 12 minutes -- which is the exact amount of time players are in the locker room during intermission of a regular-season game. 

Throw in the set-up and tear-down time required to put on the extravaganza and you have a break of almost 45 minutes in the middle of the most important game of the year -- more than 30 minutes longer than the normal break. I’m not quite sure who benefited more, Perry or the NFL, but somehow I really don’t think they needed each other all that much. Where are the classic marching bands when you really need them?

Before Super Bowls were identified with Roman Numerals (that started with Super Bowl V in 1971, which Colts fans will remember as a bad game with a good result), it was said that only 5 percent of companies who used advertising as a sales tool could afford to buy a TV spot during the big game. That’s when the game was ranked somewhere below the Rose Bowl in entertainment value and a 30-second spot went for less than $100,000. This year, those 30 seconds of fame cost a cool $4.5 million.

You can’t argue with those numbers, even though the league has to tap dance around the fact that the secondary ticket market was touting an average price of $10,000. Like the other major sports, the NFL doesn’t like to admit it’s in a partnership with that secondary ticket market. Of course, it also doesn’t like to admit football, more than any sport, is fueled by gambling.

Baseball, which has jumped into the fantasy league craze with great enthusiasm, doesn’t get off the hook here, but the game doesn’t lend itself to the gambling instinct as much as football. Pitching matchups generally dominate the action and those wise in such matter are too aware of the dangers of the dreaded “reverse lock” to venture too deep into the gambling pool.

The fascination with the big numbers that now seem so routine, in both salaries and ticket prices, reminds me of an observation made 40 years ago by, of all people, former Orioles manager Earl Weaver. Baseball was believed to be teetering on the brink of free agency, when small market teams would be devoured and interest in the game would wane.

To the dismay of his team’s ownership and front office, Weaver wouldn’t fall into the “doom-and-gloom trap” (there I go with the Showalterisms again). 

“The big salaries will just bring more attention to the game,” Weaver said, “and the players making the most will be the most popular.”

Even though the general fan base probably wouldn’t agree any more than they might have four decades ago, Weaver’s words, for better or worse, have turned out to be true. There are just more commas involved in the process than even Weaver could have imagined.

As for the Super Bowl, those in the know are already predicting it will only get bigger, if not better. Looking ahead to the big one on the horizon, the NFL proved to be way ahead of the curve. It didn’t take the league long, probably no more than a few seconds, to decide that Roman Numerals needed a break.

It was considered sexy 45 years ago to dub the fifth game Super Bowl V, but the NFL called a reverse on this one a long time ago. Following XLIX, something as mundane as Super Bowl L just wasn’t going to cut it, so it’s back to the basics. 

But don’t look for Super Bowl 50 to be any less intoxicating.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 206: February 2015