“How come you aren’t at the Super Bowl?”
I probably will be asked that question, oh, about 100 times between now and Sunday. I’m asked it every year at this time by people in line at the grocery store and the guy pumping gas at the Wawa. Everyone, it seems, wants to know.
My standard answer is the Eagles aren’t in the game so there is no reason for me to be there. The last time I went to a Super Bowl was January 2005 when the Eagles played New England in Jacksonville. I went with the Comcast SportsNet team. The Eagles haven’t been back and neither have I.
But the truth is I’m not that anxious to go. I’ve been to 28 Super Bowls as a sports writer, a producer with NFL Films and an analyst for Comcast SportsNet. I’ve been there, done that. Now, I’m perfectly happy to sit home and watch it on TV.
Since I started covering the NFL in 1970, I’ve seen the Super Bowl grow into a spectacle that I barely recognize. It is now more of an event than a game. It is so big, so loud and so over the top that it is almost a parody.
When I came around a corner and almost walked into a life-sized statue of Troy Aikman made entirely of marble cake, I thought, “Maybe this has gone too far.” Then, I saw a life-sized statue of Neil O’Donnell (it was Super Bowl XXX) right next to it and I knew, yes, it had definitely gone too far.
There was a time when the press releases distributed at the media center concerned the two teams, injury updates and practice reports. Now there are more releases about how many chicken wings will be consumed on Super Bowl Sunday (1.25 billion), how many pounds of guacamole (eight million) and how many people will call in sick to work on Monday (seven million). Who comes up with this stuff anyway?
But as much as the commercial excess makes me cringe, there is no denying the size of the event. The Super Bowl draws the largest TV audience of the year. Last year, a record 111 million people watched the game. More than 150 international media outlets were on hand, filing reports to TV stations from Italy to New Zealand. The Super Bowl is bigger than any political convention, any royal wedding or any awards show.
After Paul McCartney performed at the Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl, sales of his solo music catalogue jumped 250 percent the following week. The Beatles' catalogue shot up 60 percent. It was as if McCartney was discovered again. That’s the power of the Super Bowl
The top executives from nearly 70 percent of the Fortune 500 companies attend the Super Bowl. It is almost like two separate events now: There is the convention portion with all the exhibits, parties and corporate glad-handing that goes on Monday through Friday. Then, many of those people leave and another wave of revelers come in for the weekend to simply party and attend the game.
There are fashion shows and cooking contests, pep rallies and video games, card shows and talk shows everywhere. The NFL Experience is a sprawling big top where fans can pay to kick field goals and run a virtual 40-yard dash against Adrian Peterson. There is a gala commissioner’s party for friends of the league -- players, coaches, media members, celebrities, politicians -- all schmoozing amid ice sculptures carved in the shape of team logos.
I’d be OK with all this if it wasn’t for the foolishness that goes along with it. Some media outlets have turned the player interviews into a farce. One foreign TV outlet put a female reporter in a wedding dress and had her propose to Tom Brady. (This was before he was married). It was a little hard to get the interview back on track after that. I mean, how do you go from “Will you marry me?” to “Tom, about beating the blitz …”
MTV actually started it. At Super Bowl XXV, Downtown Julie Brown, one of their video DJs, wore a pair of skin tight pants and climbed on several players’ laps to ask a question. I remember Buffalo receiver Andre Reed looking rather startled, as if to say, “I guess I’m not in Kutztown anymore.”
Somehow I think we’ve gone off course. I recall my first Super Bowl in January 1971. It was played in Miami and it was a low-key affair. This was long before ESPN, FOX, cable TV and all that. Mostly, it was newspaper reporters and a relatively small group at that.
Today, coach and player interviews are done in hotel ballrooms or tents large enough to host Ringling Brothers. At Super Bowl V, we interviewed the players in their rooms. There was a list of the room numbers in the lobby. All you had to do was scan the list, find your guy and take the elevator to his room.
I remember going to the room of John Unitas, the great Baltimore Colts quarterback, and finding him sitting on the edge of his bed, talking to two other writers. He was in a pair of shorts and loafers, sipping a soda and talking about the Dallas Cowboys, his opponent for Sunday.
One of the writers asked Unitas about the pressure of playing in a Super Bowl.
“Heck, it’s a football game,” he said.
I often wonder what Unitas would think of it now.