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The Super Bowl, Las Vegas and Taylor Swift show why the NFL always wins

The Chiefs and the Niners battle it out for the Lombardi trophy but, as Ed Malyon discovers in Sin City, the NFL consumes much more beyond the football field when sport’s biggest circus comes to town

Ed Malyon
In Las Vegas
Sunday 11 February 2024 08:50 GMT
The Super Bowl Half Time Show: A history

The biggest compliment you can give Las Vegas as it prepares to host its first Super Bowl is that the week has been pretty much business as usual.

It is unclear whether the International Roofing Expo, the Distressed Investing Conference or any of the other trade shows in town this week were aware that one of the world’s biggest sporting circuses would be here when they booked their Vegas get-togethers, but a city built for huge numbers of visitors has barely even creaked despite the unseasonably cold and wet weather.

Thousands of Canadian visitors here to see the Edmonton Oilers take on the Vegas Golden Knights could be seen shoulder to shoulder with drag acts or sat at the blackjack table, draped in their bright orange ice hockey jerseys. Just another day.

Super Bowl broadcaster CBS has taken over the pavement in front of the Bellagio’s iconic fountains for their set this week, and so the meandering tourists have a little more to fit into their pictures than usual, but otherwise, this is Vegas as you know it: bustling, loud and neon, the world’s greatest theme park for grown-ups. Just with added football. And gambling, of course. The American attitude to gambling remains confused and unclear, almost impossible to paint with a broad brush.

Many column inches this week have been dedicated to this being the logical conclusion of the NFL’s sensational volte-face after a decades-long opposition to anything remotely related to betting, let alone the world’s most famous gambling mecca. Where players were once forbidden to even set foot in casinos, they now post content at poker tables. It truly is a new world for them, and it is still taking some getting used to.

Once the 2018 Supreme Court ruling overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and opened up sports betting to the world’s biggest sports economy, the floodgates were opened. Now every one of the country’s major leagues is soaking wet. Ubiquitous television ads during sporting events are starting to grate on the public in the same way as they used to during Premier League broadcasts in Britain, but it is at the league level that the explosion of gambling has been so interesting.

Las Vegas is ready for Super Bowl LVIII (Getty Images)
Las Vegas could enter the Super Bowl rotation for years to come (Getty Images)

In a country where puritanical pearl-clutching is a national and political pastime, the NFL for decades took the easy road and always framed its opposition to gambling as a moral stance as opposed to simply a regulatory imperative.

But as with most moral stances in America, they just needed enough money to change their mind.

In the relatively short time since that 2018 ruling, one of the league’s most storied franchises (the Oakland Raiders) has moved to Sin City and the NFL now has a wide range of lucrative arrangements with multiple sports betting companies. If you’re unsure which, simply take a walk down the Las Vegas strip this week and see which are promoting “the Big Game” with generic pictures of footballs and which ones proudly pump up the Super Bowl, accompanied by the league’s favoured Roman numerals – this year: LVIII.

While the league still has some work to do on its gambling policies after a player was suspended this season for betting on an entirely different sport – but still breaking league rules by doing it from the team’s training facility – the softening stance on gambling has opened up Vegas for its first Super Bowl, and league sources confirmed that it won’t be the last. Allegiant Stadium, just off the world-famous strip, is almost certain to join Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans in the regular rotation for the NFL’s showpiece event and early signs are that it might even be the best of all of them.

The Sphere on the Las Vegas Strip displays Super Bowl LVIII signage (Getty Images)
The Sphere displaying San Francisco 49ers signage (Getty Images)

Events and parties surrounding last year’s game in Glendale, Arizona were far too spread out, a problem LA also struggled with in 2022 in addition to traffic that locked up the city. Miami, where this year’s contenders the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers met four years ago, is an ideal city from a size and entertainment perspective but also struggles with logistics owing to just a few bridges separating Miami Beach from the mainland.

Vegas, on the other hand, is built for these sorts of events. Tens of thousands of hotel rooms concentrated in a small area, with much of it walkable, including the route to the world-class stadium that will host the game. Some of the world’s best restaurants and nightclubs will host huge global acts this weekend as fans and celebrities pour into the city for the game.

That is the sort of cultural mega-event that the NFL wants from their annual jamboree. It is the sort of cultural mega-event that other sports openly aspire to recreate, but as we saw with the disastrous inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, it isn’t necessarily as simple to do so as you might think.

The league’s thirst for eyeballs is helped by the fact that they have two genuinely outstanding teams competing in the game itself.

Patrick Mahomes, who passes the eye test as the greatest quarterback of his generation with flying colours, has become a mature and controlled leader of an evolving Chiefs team. The off-platform throws and hyperspeed mental processing of his early years are still in his game but it is a sign of his will to win that he has corked up the fireworks and explosive plays in favour of a more side-to-side gameplan that puts the current iteration of his team in a better position to win, even if the margins are more narrow.

As long as Mahomes is on the team, you feel the Chiefs will be in the Super Bowl mix. Talk on Monday morning will be of a dynasty if he can win a third Lombardi trophy at the age of just 28, but to do that he will need to conquer arguably the league’s most complete team.

In the same way that the explosive Chiefs team of four years ago has almost flipped its style, the 49ers have too.

Coach Kyle Shanahan is nothing short of a genius when it comes to generating offensive success, and their star-studded offense will be helmed by Brock Purdy, a quarterback that every team in the league passed on multiple times in the draft before San Francisco scooped him up with the very last pick.

Shanahan moved on from then-QB Jimmy Garoppolo in the wake of that painful Super Bowl defeat to the Chiefs in 2020 because he felt he needed a new signal-caller who could make the key plays when it mattered. Stumbling into Purdy has been a stupendous mélange of luck and judgement – if they realised how good he was, they’d never have let him fall to the end of the seventh round – but his ability to throw with anticipation and accuracy makes him a great fit for the Shanahan system, while his draft slot means his salary allows for the 49ers to surround him with highly-paid star talent.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce warm-up (Getty Images)
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan speak during San Francisco 49ers practice (Getty Images)

That is why San Francisco are favoured for the game, albeit only by two points at last glance. They are also holding up well from an injury standpoint, while Kansas City are missing a key piece on either trench in the shape of Joe Thuney and Charles Omenihu.

Even without those two, Mahomes is capable of beating any team on his own. The 49ers have the best offence in the league by almost every metric, and yet… it is still Mahomes, buttressed by a vastly improved defensive unit, who they must overcome.

The city will be buzzing, the lights will be bright, the stars will be out to play and of the two biggest questions surrounding this game, one – who will ultimately hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy – will not be known until around 7.30pm local time on Sunday night.

The other big mystery, whether this preview could be the first Super Bowl preview published anywhere in the world to not mention Taylor Swift, has just been solved.

Impossible, of course.

But the musical megastar, who overflows with independence and femininity and who attracts to the game an entirely new audience who might otherwise not have cared, brings a different face to this game. She creates a cultural moment simply with her presence.

Taylor Swift has been supporting partner Travis Kelce throughout the playoffs (Getty Images)
Usher will perform at the Apple Music Super Bowl LVIII halftime show (Getty Images)

Needless to say, with advertising rates as they are and an expectation of record TV ratings, the NFL are pretty happy with the entire situation.

Whether it’s getting into bed with sports betting, embracing Sin City as a locale, or simply existing in a world where its stars strike up relationships with the biggest popstars on earth, the NFL always seems to come out on top.

And so it is fitting that in Vegas, where the house always wins, the NFL have found out that they do too.

Get all the Super Bowl betting markets, tips and latest odds here.

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers is on Sunday 11 February on ITV1 and ITVX, and it will also be shown on Sky Sports. Coverage starts at 10.45pm

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