The Super Bowl: The greatest show on turf
Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest sporting event in America. But forget the game – it's about so much more than that
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Saturday 04 February 2012
Listen to Bill Belichick, the most successful NFL coach of the present era, and tomorrow's battle between the New York Giants and his own New England Patriots for the gaudiest prize in American sport has nothing to do with revenge. "This game is about this team, this year," he insists. The past doesn't matter. And anyway, "there aren't really a lot of us who were actually involved in that game."
Ah yes, "that game". It too was a Super Bowl, no. XLII in the Roman numerals the league employs to add even more gladiatorial spice to the occasion. It was also one of the most memorable, a 17-14 win for the Giants thanks to a touchdown with just 35 seconds on the clock.
The outcome wasn't merely an upset for the ages. It robbed the Patriots of a 19-0 perfect season, that would have statistically sealed their place as the greatest team of the modern era. Four years on, the same two opponents will take to the field for Super Bowl XLVI.
Belichick is right to point out that, apart from himself and Tom Coughlin, his opposite number at the Giants, and the two quarterbacks, Eli Manning and Tom Brady, few of the players in 2008 will feature this time (the average career length of an NFL player is only three and a half years). But whatever he says, revenge will be on giant dishes invisibly lining the touchline at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And it won't be eaten cold.
In fact, nothing about Super Bowls these days is ever even tepid, let alone cold. The game is the biggest single sporting event in the Western hemisphere. Its date on the first Sunday in February is a part of the national calendar to rival Thanksgiving or the 4th of July. In truth though, it is a week- long extravaganza, a celebration of how the Gridiron colossus bestrides American sport.
The NFL claims to be the richest professional sports league on earth. True, its serene progress was briefly slowed by an 18-week lockout before the 2011 season, as owners and players fought over how to divide $9bn (£5.7bn) of annual revenues. Gradually though the realisation dawned there was more than enough for everyone. Only one pre-season game was lost, and the NFL today is more popular than ever.
The Super Bowl is its most glittering showcase. The last four of them have been four of the five most watched broadcasts in US history (the fifth was the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983). No detail is too small to warrant a news story. This week The Wall Street Journal informed its readers that during the game, the estimated 110 million-plus TV audience will consume, inter alia, 13.2 million pounds of pretzels, 45.8 million pounds of potato chips and 111 million gallons of beer.
The going rate for 30-second commercials during the game (the ads, incidentally, are a minor cultural phenomenon in their own right) is seen as an important barometer of the nation's economic health. This year's spots cost a record $4m each. Maybe the recession finally is over.
Another, smaller, innovation tells a similar story of the Super Bowl's success. The Tuesday before the game is traditionally Media Day. It used to be limited to players and reporters. This year the NFL spotted another little earner, and sold 7,300 tickets for fans to sit in the stands and follow proceedings through special earphones. The tickets went on sale online for $25 and sold out in an instant. By Tuesday, touts outside Lucas Oil Stadium were hawking them for $45 apiece.
Americans, it seems, simply cannot get enough of what they call "football". Roger Goodell, the league's Commissioner, is now talking of adding two new franchises to the existing 32. At least one, and maybe both, will go to Los Angeles, the country's second largest metro area, which astonishingly has no team at all right now, and push revenues higher still.
For the first time too, the NFL will directly address during this Super Bowl the one truly dark cloud hanging over the sport – the risk of concussions, and long-term brain damage suffered by former players, some of whom are suing the league for negligence. In the interval between the final two quarters, a 60-second spot will run, illustrating the improvements in rules and equipment over the decades and conveying that the old indifference to injury is gone, that player safety is now the top priority. It ends with the veteran Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis saying: "Here's to making the next century safer and more exciting. Forever forward. Forever football."
And after all the hoopla, football tomorrow is what it's all about. Only rarely are Super Bowls an anti-climax, and if the Patriots' rematch with the Giants is is only half as good as "that game", two evenly matched teams will have offered up another feast.
According to the Las Vegas bookmakers, the Patriots are again favoured, but by a bare three points. The public however is betting on the Giants – meaning that it could be an expensive day for the bookies. As usual, the performance of the two quarterbacks will be key.
In 10 years with the Patriots, Tom Brady already has appeared in five Super Bowls, winning three of them and is considered the pre-eminent quarterback of his era. But Eli Manning, his opposite number, is having arguably his best season yet, while the Giants have hit peak form at the perfect moment.
Two questions dominate. Can New York's fearsome defence repeat its performance of 2008, when it harried Brady throughout, knocking him out of his rhythm? If so, then the Giants will again prove the Patriots' nemesis. But if Brady is given the protection to work his magic, New England will probably prevail.
The Patriots two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, have been a record-breaking scoring partnership this season. Can they continue in that vein tomorrow?
If so, they will have lived up to the nickname bestowed on them by an adoring New England press, of "The Boston TE party".
Super Facts: 46 things you need to know about Super Bowl XLV1
1 Among bets expected to be placed is the time the singer (Kelly Clarkson) will take to finish the National Anthem. Her average at sporting events is 90 seconds.
2 Advertising slots during the Superbowl cost an average of $3.5m for each 30 seconds. The price has risen by 50 per cent over the past ten years.
3 Sir Elton John stars as the king of a medieval court in a Pepsi Superbowl advert with US X Factor winner Melanie Amaro. John reignited his feud with Madonna, advising the singer "Make sure you lip-synch good" ahead of her half-time performance during which the star will unveil her new single Give Me All Your Luvin
4 Volkswagen is running a minute-long Twilight-themed vampire advert during this year's game, showcasing the new LED headlights on its 2013 Audi S7.
5 New York Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka has one of the more interesting back stories among the players: his grandfather Benedicto Kiwanuka, above right, was the first Prime Minister of Uganda. He was murdered by the regime of Presiden Idi Amin, right, in 1972.
6 Over 45 Super Bowls, 3,512,727 fans have attended the games. The largest crowd was for Super Bowl XIV, which drew 103,985 people in 1980.
7 Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers had his hair insured by Head & Shoulders for $1m last year.
8 The Lucas Oil stadium, which hosts this year's Super Bowl, will be expanded from its usual 63,000 capacity to 70,000 to cope with the demands of hosting the game.
9 Super Bowl Sunday is known by some as Guacamole Sunday. Fans are expected to consume an estimated 71.4 million pounds of avocados this year.
10 David Beckham will feature in a 30-second advert for his new underwear line for H&M, the first time he has been involved with America's biggest sporting event.
11 The Alien director Ridley Scott is credited with bringing Super Bowl ads into the mega-money age with his 1984 advert for the Apple Mac.
12 The FBI has this week seized 307 internet domains allegedly involved in illegally streaming sports events and selling unauthorised NFL merchandise.
13 Cheerleaders make a return this year, having been absent for the first time in 2011, but the match is one-sided as the New York Giants don't have a squad.
14 The most-watched game on American TV also attracts the most-bets, with $87.5m being wagered on Super Bowl last year.
15 In 2005, sales of Paul McCartney's solo music jumped 250 per cent in the week after the game after he performed in the coveted half-time slot.
16 55,200 hot dogs were served at the stadium in Tampa Bay when it hosted Super Bowl XLIII in 2008
17 The location of the Super Bowl is chosen three to five years before the game. In 2007, the NFL suggested it might one day be played in London.
18 Viewers will get a taste of Sacha Baron Cohen's new film The Dictator, loosely based on the life of Saddam Hussein, during one of this year's ad breaks.
19 The biggest Super Bowl ad spenders since 2002 have been General Motors ($83m), PepsiCo ($174m) and Anheuser-Busch ($239m).
20 In 45 Super Bowls, the team who has won the coin toss has triumphed 22 times. The Patriots have the worst record, having won one and lost five coin tosses.
21 80s goth rockers The Cult are celebrating a windfall after their track 'She Sells Sanctuary' was chosen for this year's one-minute ad spot for Budweiser.
22 The Patriots' cheerleading squad were recently ranked number one in the NFL by CNBC, out pom-pomming the "more prestigious" Dallas Cowboys.
23 The longest odds winners were the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who were 300-1 to win at the start of the season.
24 The game will be distributed internationally by the NFL and NFL International to more than 185 countries and broadcast in 30 different languages.
25 An analysis of big-budget movies between 1998 and 2001 found that those promoted during Super Bowl grossed 40 per cent more than those which did not.
26 The show immediately after the Super Bowl enjoys a huge spike in audience figures. In 1996 an episode of Friends was watched by 52.9 million.
27 Last year, Christina Aguilera sang The Star Spangled Banner before the game, but used incorrect lyrics which matched an error on Wikipedia.
28 Broadcaster CBS was fined $550,000 after the "wardrobe malfunction" in 2004, when Janet Jackson exposed part of a breast during her performance.
29 Television alternatives include Lingerie Bowl, on another channel during half time, and Puppy Bowl, which this year features piglet cheerleaders.
30 Coca-Cola will air commercials during the first and second quarter breaks which show computer-generated Arctic polar bears watching the game. Viewers will be encouraged to follow the bears during the game on Twitter.
31 The shortest Super Bowl commercial of all time was just a half-second long for Ivar's seafood chain of Seattle during Super Bowl XLIII, back in 2009.
32 The longest Super Bowl commercial lasted two minutes, starring Eminem driving a Chrysler 200 throughout the city of Detroit.
33 A record $88,000 will be paid to the players on the winning team, with the loser's share also a record at $44,000.
34 The host city can expect a Super Bowl windfall of around $150m, including cash spent by fans, media, and sponsors.
35 The league pays for 150 diamond-encrusted Super Bowl rings to be given to players and staff on the winning team. Each ring costs around $5,000 each.
36 At least one ticket on the official NFL ticket resale website sold for $16,480 last week for Super Bowl XLVI. The single most expensive ticket from the 2011 Super Bowl was $15,946 (about £10,000), for a seventh-row seat on the 50-yard line.
37 Ads that featured animals in last year's Super Bowl performed 21 per cent better than ads starring celebrities.
38 The famous ad campaign "I'm going to Disney World" started during the 1987 Super Bowl with New York Giants' Phil Simms being paid a reported $75,000 to say it.
39 Hotel rooms near the Lucas Oil stadium in Indianapolis have been marked up by as much as 1,758 per cent for this weekend.
40 It is expected that 325.5 million US gallons (a truly remarkable 2.16 billion UK pints) of beer will be consumed by Americans during the Super Bowl.
41 The average number of US viewers for Super Bowl XLV (2011) was 111,010,000
42 The Vince Lombardi trophy stands 20-and-three-quarter inches tall, weighs 6.7 pounds and is valued at more than $25,000.
43 In 20 years, 17 Super Bowls have been won by the city with the lower unemployment rate. The trend would favour the Patriots.
44 Domino's Pizza will deliver about nine million pieces of pizza to viewers. Fans are also expected to consume 11.2 million pounds of crisps.
45 Jerry Rice, a wide receiver, has the record for the most touchdowns caught in the Super Bowl, achieving the feat seven times over three separate competitions.
46 According to the National Chicken Council, Americans will eat 1.25 billion chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday, weighing over 90 million lbs.
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