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The Super Bowl - A Bluffer's Guide

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A silver American football on a stand - the Superbowl trophy

It used to be said that if the Russians ever wanted to invade America they need only wait for Super Sunday. The whole of the country would be at a standstill and eyes turned towards the biggest game in the American Football calendar - the Super Bowl.

The Contest

The Super Bowl is the championship of American Football bringing together the champions of the AFC and NFC1 in a winner-takes-all contest for the Vince Lombardi trophy. Given the structure of the NFL, these champions are decided following a 16-game regular season that starts in September, followed by three weeks of knockout playoffs.

Prior to 2002, the Super Bowl has always been played on a Sunday during January, usually the last one. Only the cancellation of games after the 9/11 tragedy pushed Super Bowl XXXVI into February, but some future Super Bowls will now be played at this time.

Origins of the Super Bowl

In 1966, America's two rival professional leagues - the NFL and AFL2 - finally decided to merge together rather than to continue their rivalry. The first step towards the merger3 was to have an AFL-NFL World Championship Game between the winners of each league, and was first played in January 1967.

Unfortunately in the media-friendly United States this title hardly tripped off the tongue, while the rest of the world (had they heard it) would have laughed at America's pomposity to call a game played only by themselves a world championship. The name Super Bowl was coined by Lamar Hunt, the owner of the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs, when he saw his young daughter playing with a toy called a 'Super Ball'. Bowl games4 are a staple part at the end of college football's season in deciding champions, so for the professionals it was only fitting that theirs should be a Super Bowl.

Only in 1970 when the Chiefs played the Minnesota Vikings for the fourth World Championship did the term 'Super Bowl' begin to be used. A year later, the Baltimore Colts and Dallas Cowboys met in Super Bowl V as Roman Numerals began to be suffixed. The previous games were subsequently renamed Super Bowls I, II, III and IV. By January 2000 the Super Bowls had progressed to number XXXIV (34).

The Cities

The Super Bowl's location changes from year to year, and, just as with the football World Cup and the Olympics, the awarding of a Super Bowl can bring much to the local economy. Unsurprisingly there is competition between cities to win the right to host one.

Most of the Super Bowls have been held in one of three areas - New Orleans, Florida and Los Angeles - although some have also been played in San Diego, Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco and Tempe, Arizona. An overriding factor in all these cities is that they have warm climates, making it more likely that the game will be a good contest, avoiding errors caused by cold hands or wet balls. Even so, on a couple of occasions the NFL has headed north into Detroit and Minnesota where the games were played in dome stadiums to keep out the elements.


With stadium capacities only allowing between 60,000 and 100,000 spectators, tickets are like gold dust. At the time of writing, tickets cost $300 each and on the black market will be worth at least 10 times that. It comes as something of a surprise then to learn that back at SB I, tickets prices were priced between $6 and $12 and the 92,000 seat capacity Los Angeles Coliseum was only two-thirds full.

The Prizes

The Vince Lombardi trophy is named after the legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers who steered them to win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. Standing 22 inches tall, weighing 7 pounds and made from sterling silver, the trophy has an American football on a triangular base. Each year a new one is cast at a cost of $12,500.

At the time of writing, the players from the winning team receive $64,000 and a ring costing $5,000. Each year's ring is designed to the specification of the winning team. Usually made from gold and encrusted with diamonds and other valuable gemstones, it will have details of the win engraved and its significance to the team indicated. For example the rings from SB XXX are made from 77-carat gold, have the words 'Dallas Cowboys' engraved around the edge, and a star5 made from five diamonds in the centre surrounded by five footballs to signify their five Super Bowl victories.

A Media Frenzy

For those not lucky enough to be able to get hold of, or afford, tickets, and the game being played thousands of miles away in a stadium somewhere in sunny Florida, it is left to the media of America to keep the rest informed.

Almost half the households in the States will gather around the TV set come gametime and ratings are up over 130 million. Worldwide ratings reach 800 million. Super Bowls dominate US television's all-time ratings in occupying the top 9 spots with SB XXX between Dallas and Pittsburgh pulling in 138,488,000. Only the women's figure skating from the 1994 Winter Olympics can make it into the list at number 10!

With these types of viewing figures the TV networks are able to hike up their advertising rates, and, at their peak in 2000, thirty seconds of airtime could cost $2.5 million! Companies advertising are beginning to spend large amounts of money to develop adverts that will capture the imagination of the public, be talked about at work on the next Monday morning, and ultimately sell their products. Some of America's best known adverts have debuted during the Super Bowl, and even made it on to television sets around the world. Among the best remembered are Budweiser's 'Frogs', Apple's '1984' and Pepsi's 'Apartment 10G', starring Michael J Fox.

In Britain, American football had always been seen as an oddity and it wasn't until 1982, with the birth of the then-new station 'Channel 4', that it finally got a regular airing. A highlights package on Sunday evening of one of the previous weekend's best games brought the sport to a new audience across the pond, and in January 1983 came the real highlight - a live Super Bowl. Up to a million Brits got to see John Riggins lead the Redskins to triumph over the Dolphins.

Over the next few years the game's popularity increased to the extent that by the time the Bears were trouncing the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, the peak audience was estimated at 6 million. Amazingly with the inherent time differences between Britain and the US, Super Bowls typically start late at night lasting until two or three o'clock in the morning. Sadly interest could not be sustained and ratings slipped back down to a hardcode few, with Channel 4 broadcasting its last Super Bowl in 1998. Sky, a subscription-based satellite channel, showed the next four, but in 2003 the Super Bowl returned to terrestrial TV on Five6, although not everybody in Britain is able to pick this station up.

Super Bowl Week and Interviews

Teams arrive in the Super Bowl city on the Monday preceding the game and aside from practicing they face a barrage of media interest and numerous interviews. TV crews and newspaper reporters descend from all over the country and around the world to try to get a scoop or step up on the competition. The interaction between media and players can be fascinating ...

  • Going into SB III, the Baltimore Colts were 19 point favourites. During the week, Joe Namath, quarterback of the underdog Jets, went to the Miami Touchdown Club's dinner to receive its Player of the Year award. On the way to receive his award a heckler shouted that the Jets would be getting sorely beaten. Namath's response was 'We're going to win this game. I guarantee it!' Next morning the papers were full of headlines such as 'Namath Guarantees Victory' - a promise that he went on to fulfil.

  • In the leadup to SB XIII, Dallas linebacker Thomas 'Hollywood' Henderson was quoted as saying 'Bradshaw couldn't spell CAT if you spotted him the C and the A' about Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Henderson though had to swallow his words as Bradshaw led the Steelers to a 35-31 victory in which he threw four touchdown passes and became the game's most valuable player.

  • A couple of years later the Oakland Raiders entered New Orleans to play the Philadelphia Eagles in SB XV. John Matuszak, a defensive lineman known for his hellraising and partying antics told reporters how he was now a reformed character and would be setting a good example for the younger players to follow. Next day when he arrived 40 minutes late to the press conference and still hung over, he was asked why he had been caught breaking curfew. He told reporters with a straight face that 'I'm the enforcer - that's why I was out on the streets, to make sure no one else was!'.

  • Five years later the Super Bowl returned to New Orleans and the Chicago Bears were seen out on Bourbon Street partying into the early hours. Their leader, quarterback Jim McMahon, chose to moon a TV news helicopter from the practice field to get them further attention.

  • In 1988, Doug Williams faced perhaps the most farcical question of them all. At a time when African-Americans were only just beginning to break down prejudices stopping them from playing the quarterback position, Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team in the Super Bowl. In a pregame press conference he was asked 'How long have you been a black quarterback?'. To his credit, he replied 'Now let me see, how old am I?'.

Super Sunday

On a game day, known as a Super Sunday, the country grinds to a halt as millions of households, friends and families gather together for Super Bowl watching parties. Indulging in beer, nachos and other junk food, sharing living room couches or nestled in specially marketed inflatable armchairs with built-in drink-holders, they give themselves over to completely unrestrained displays of team loyalty, waving pennant flags, heckling the television, and leaping about and shouting at key plays. It is, for many, one of the most significant cultural events on the American calendar, rivalling Christmas and Thanksgiving in terms of universal observance, ritual, and even, for true fans, sanctity. And then there is the game itself, an exercise in excess, razzmatazz and hype if ever there was.

In spite of the game starting in the afternoon or evening, depending on where in the States viewers are watching, the parties start early, as do the television pregame shows. For up to eight hours prior to the kickoff, the expert commentary teams will be analysing the contenders' regular season and playoff performances, interviewing players and trying to predict how the game will unfold. The networks are also taking the opportunity to rake in some advertising dollars.

As kickoff nears, the action in the stadium begins to happen. First there is the pregame entertainment. In earlier days it would be a marching band or a salute to Apollo astronauts, sometimes a flyover by jets from the airforce or navy, but more recently it has involved entertainers like Tina Turner, Sting or the rock group Kiss.

Following the pregame entertainment, the teams enter the field of play. Until recently each team would have the players from either its offense or defense introduced on an individual basis.

And now the offense of the San Francisco 49ers ... at quarterback Joeeee Montana ... [huge applause and cheering] ... at wide receiver Jerreeeee Rice ... [more rabid applause and cheering]

with each player running through a festoon of balloons to exchange high-fives with his team-mates. Hopefully this is a minor bit of showmanship that will return to future Super Bowls.

After the introductions, the teams lineup, the crowd stand and a celebrity sings the National Anthem. Singers to have received this calling include Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Herb Alpert, Harry Connick Jr, Roseanne (who disgraced herself admirably) and the Children's Choir of San Francisco.

Finally the action can begin to start and the team captains7 meet in the centre of the field with the referee and (yet another) celebrity to perform the coin toss. Celebrity flippers range from old players of bygone decades to players from recent times through to owners, Mrs Lombardi, and even Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. With the coin flip performed and teams having elected whether to kickoff or receive, and which end to defend the game can finally begin.

For the next hour and a half or so, the two teams sweat blood and tears as they block, tackle, run and pass the football around the field to tick off the 30 minutes of the first half. Given the chance to rake in their big fees, the television networks take every opportunity (timeout, injury, end of quarter, refereeing error etc) to get in some more commercials. Unfortunately in Britain this never quite worked as given the lower popularity of the game, especially at one o'clock in the morning, Channel 4 were limited to only one advertiser trying to sell their brand of beer. It's surprising anyone ever bought the stuff again after watching the advert repeated 63 times.

When halftime arrives there is a 30-minute interlude. The first 15 minutes is for the commentators to discuss the big plays of the first half, while the corporation pull in a few more advertising dollars. The second 15 minutes are for the Halftime Show. Relentlessly plugged through the first half of the game, the Halftime Show will be a themed extravaganza often with top popstars. Among those of recent times are the 'Blues Brothers Bash', 'Salute to Motown's 40th Anniversary' (featuring various Motown artists), 'Heal the World' (starring Michael Jackson), and, in the last couple of years, N*Sync, Aerosmith and U2. In the halftime show of 2004's Super Bowl, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake caused quite a commotion.

The second half restarts, viewers lose interest because one of the teams is so far ahead that the game has become a blowout, and the players return to beating seven-bells out of each other until the final gun. Just occasionally, about two years in every ten, the game gets very exciting at this point, with the result being decided in the last few minutes.

After the game the Commissioner of the NFL presents the Vince Lombardi trophy to the owner of the winning team. The owner says a few (rather sickly) comments along the lines of 'I want to thank ...', 'This is the greatest team we've ever had ...', 'Our fans back in [team's city] are the greatest and deserve this more than anyone ...', 'Coach [name] has done a wonderful job of preparing this football team ...', 'This is due to the dedication and commitment of our players without whom ...'. Then the television crews move in to ask more inane questions 'Are you pleased to have finally won a Super Bowl?' and so on.

And, just to prove the point, the preceding paragraph was written at least a month before Super Bowl XXXVII, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer didn't let us down with his response to receiving the trophy from Commissioner Paul Tagliablue:

Thank you, thank you so much. First I want to thank Coach Gruden for what he did. He came from heaven and he brought us to heaven. Then next I want to thank the players. We got the greatest players in the whole world. They're the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If you haven't heard of them, you heard of them today. And then the fans. We got the best fans in the whole world. Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay. We love you.

The only thing left is for the President of the USA to call the winning team or invite them to visit the White House. Some players go on to play in the Pro Bowl8 in Hawaii the next weekend, and then the season is over. For the players who have become free agents9 it is the perfect time to sign new (and bigger) contracts, probably with a different team.

Eight months later the regular season kicks off again and the World Champions look to repeat their success, while all the other teams look to knock them off their perch. Occasionally a few, very special teams have managed to create a dynasty with back-to-back Super Bowl wins, but so far the Threepeat has evaded anyone's grasp.

1The American and National Football Conferences each contain 16 of the league's 32 teams, with some historical precedent behind their allocations.2National and American Football Leagues3The merger took place at the start of the 1970 season with the two leagues becoming the NFL. This was split into two conferences of 13 teams.4So called because of the stadia where they are played. For example, Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl. The winners of the game are known as, for example, the 'Citrus Bowl winners'.5Dallas being located in Texas, the 'Lone Star' state, they have a star on their helmet design.6The station formerly known as 'Channel 5'.7And this is usually at least three per team.8The Pro Bowl is an all-star game played between the players who are voted best at their positions during the regular season. Unfortunately, given its end-of-season status, it is not taken too seriously.9Out of contract and eligible to shop themselves around the league.

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