Why the Super Bowl still matters so much to America

The Kansas City Chiefs defend their title against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday

Andrew Gamble
Sunday 07 February 2021 14:27
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The Super Bowl is a spectacle like no other in world sport.

On Sunday, Super Bowl LV will be an exciting sporting event that mixes the mainstream appeal of music and the commercial nature of the US, with a healthy dose of patriotism.

The sport itself is so uniquely American that it is commonly referred to as American football - and the NFL’s flagship event provides an insight into the nation's culture that perhaps no other event can.

Whether it is the US fighter jet flyover, a celebrity rendition of the national anthem or a salute to the military, an unknowing fan could easily mistake the Super Bowl for a four-hour tribute to the country that created the sport.

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Let’s throw it back to the start: as part of the merger between the NFL and its rival, the American Football League (AFL), they agreed to compete in a championship game between the winner of each league in 1967 before officially joining forces in 1970.

The match that would become the first edition of the Super Bowl was a far more modest occasion than what is seen today as the Los Angeles Coliseum was only around two-thirds full, as recalled by Canadian Football League coach and Sky Sports analyst Jeff Reinebold.

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“I wish I could say that I was in the womb, but I was a little kid and I remember that it was the AFL-NFL World Championship," Reinebold recalls.

“The Coliseum is big – it's like 100,000 people – but you can’t imagine having a World Championship game and not be able to sell it out.

“It’s gone on to be one of the four or five toughest tickets in sport.”

Reinebold is right, of course. Tickets to the 1967 AFL-NFL World Championship cost $12 – resale value for one nowadays can reach $8,000.

The event’s famous title, the Super Bowl, was installed for the third match in 1969 after being coined by Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt.

The Chiefs represented the AFL and were defeated by the Green Bay Packers in 1967 before triumphing in Super Bowl IV, but Reinebold believes it was the arrival of Joe Namath that turned things around.

Namath had joined the New York Jets of the renegade AFL, and he helped overthrow the old guard that was the NFL in Super Bowl III.

Reinebold added: “Brash Joe Namath personified the young, out-there AFL.

“He made his famous guarantee that the Jets would beat the Colts, who were like 20-point favourites.

“The Jets knocked them off, and that changed the entire football world.”

Raymond James Stadium will host Super Bowl LV on Sunday

From that moment on, the NFL and the Super Bowl never looked back and its meteoric rise perfectly coincided with the explosion of a now-commonplace household good: the television.

In 1955, approximately half of American households had a TV set but by 1967 – the year of Super Bowl I – that number had risen to 93 percent.

The NFL made its biggest move in 1978, as the league ensured the Super Bowl was on prime time in the US eastern time zone. This was largely done to appease the increasing number of companies seeking advertising space, but the result was enormous.

Super Bowl XII saw the Dallas Cowboys triumph over the Denver Broncos and it was the most-watched edition of the game to date, increasing in total viewers by 27 percent – by far the largest year-to-year increase in Super Bowl history.

Just like that, the Super Bowl became a permanent and dominant fixture in American culture. In fact, eight of the top ten most-watched broadcasts in American history are Super Bowls, with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ win over the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, behind only the 1969 moon landing of Apollo 11.

Jay Ajayi celebrates victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII

The Super Bowl has become enormous and, according to Reinebold, the NFL knows it.

He said: “The line the NFL uses is ‘the single greatest one-day sporting event in the world’.

“Even if you’re not a football fan, you’re going to tune in just for the sheer enormity of the spectacle.”

The Super Bowl’s standing is aided by its timing. Held on the first Sunday of February, football’s World Series holds weight over the other major leagues – the MLB, NBA and NHL – because it is a single, decisive, and ever-so-dramatic event rather than a seven-game series.

Cliff Avril, winner of Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks, echoed this sentiment and suggested that football is a quasi-religious culture and the championship game is its pinnacle.

The former-defensive end said: “In certain areas, football is a church – it's like a religion.

“It’s the number one sport in the country and people tune in because of how scarce it is in comparison to other sports.

“When you get the best players in the world to be on that stage at that moment, people gravitate towards it.”

Cliff Avril celebrates the Seattle Seahawks’ 43-8 win over the Denver Broncos at Super Bowl XLVIII

The Super Bowl has become renowned for its commercials and mainstream appeal. For many companies, it is definitely worth the substantial investment – during Super Bowl LV, the price of a 30-second slot will be $5.6 million.

The half time show is also a tremendous deal. The performers at Super Bowl LIV in Miami were Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, and they certainly didn’t disappoint.

Up to four million more viewers tuned into the game just to watch the entertainment during the break, and Nielsen Music revealed that the songs performed by the duo experienced a 1,013 percent sales increase in the US the day after the game.

The likes of Michael Jackson, Prince and Beyonce have taken to the stage throughout the history of the half time show, and it will be the turn of The Weeknd in Tampa.

Ahead of Sunday’s clash between Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs, British running back Jay Ajayi remembered the last time the Bucs were in the Super Bowl back in 2003.

It was the first time Ajayi, a Super Bowl winner with the Philadelphia Eagles, watched the Super Bowl and while he didn’t fully understand the rules of the sport, it prepared him for his moment against Brady and the Patriots in 2018.

Ajayi said: “Going into a Super Bowl, you can’t play with fear. You can’t be afraid of your opponent.

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez perform onstage during the Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show

“There was a lot of excitement around it, with the fans and the performance of the half time show – but at the end of the day, it’s just another game.”

However, that sentiment certainly changes after emerging victorious.

Ajayi added: “There's a lot of games and knowing that you won the battle, I feel like you can’t beat that achievement.”

Avril, who holds the record for the fastest score in a Super Bowl when he scored a safety against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, shares the same feeling as Ajayi.

The Sky Sports analyst said: “I had never won a championship in any level of sport so to be able to win at the top, at the pinnacle of it all, it felt great.”

Ultimately, the Super Bowl provides a window into the values that Americans hold dear, whether it is the drama of the sporting action, the glamour of the half time show, the patriotism on offer or the 14 billion hamburgers that will be consumed in the US alone during the day.

It might not be an official holiday in the States, but the Super Bowl is most certainly the most American event the world has ever seen.

Super Bowl LV is live on BBC One, Sky Sports NFL/Main Event, Sky One and NFL Game Pass on Sunday, February 7, kick-off 11.30 p.m.

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