Arrow-right Camera
News >  Nation/World

Super Bowl Is Our ‘High Holy Day’ Experience Embodies Best, Worst Of Culture

For each of the past 20 years, the people at Master Lock in Milwaukee have taken 30 seconds of America’s time on Super Bowl Sunday to show off their bullet-resistant, “tough under fire” padlock. In 1974, it cost $107,000 for that privilege. This year, the price will be just above a record $1 million, an investment that represents one-third of the company’s annual advertising budget.

“Why do we do it?” asked Master Lock President James Beardsley. “Because there will be 130 million people watching (out of 260 million Americans), and 80 million of them are adults who can buy our product,” he said.

“Everybody watches this game.”

On this day, one that NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol calls “our ninth national holiday,” they will play a football game at 75,000-seat Joe Robbie Stadium between the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers. It matters not that the 49ers are considered overwhelming 18- to 20-point favorites - the highest point spread in the 29-year history of the game. It won’t even matter if it becomes a blowout.

Americans will watch. They’ll turn on their TV sets starting at 1 p.m. PST for the two-hour pregame show on ABC (kickoff is at 3:18 p.m.) and probably not click them off during the next seven hours of programming. They’ll watch at home, they’ll watch in bars and from behind bars. Some will party and use the game merely for background noise.

“It’s a cultural event, a cultural high holy day,” said Lawrence Wenner, a professor of communications at San Francisco State University who has written extensively on the sociology of the Super Bowl.

“Life as we know it stops. I don’t think there is any one day that comes even close to it. It’s not just a game, it’s a shared American experience.”

It’s also a day of excess almost everywhere you look, from the corporate tents in the stadium parking lot whose tables sag under the weight of all those stone crabs and jumbo shrimp to a cast of thousands in the halftime show - including snakes this year - that often is too long.

Today, most of America will sit riveted by their sets to make sure Kathie Lee Gifford doesn’t miss a beat, a note, a word during her singing of the National Anthem. Not after all those tabloid stories - all denied by the NFL that Barbra Streisand was the league’s No. 1 draft choice. Frank Gifford, who will broadcast the game, was asked about his wife’s state of readiness for her Big Moment last week.

“It will be a special moment for me,” he gushed.

“She’s a wonderful singer and a lot of people don’t realize that, as is obvious from the snide remarks in the press. But I have no doubt she’ll do just fine.”

So will the American economy. During the game itself, the viewing audience will be subject to 60 30-second units of advertising that provide another fascinating game within the game, a competition to see who can produce the slickest piece of advertising, and damn the torpedoes on how much it costs.

More than 25 companies have signed up for in-game spots, with other advertisers buying all the pre-game, halftime and post-game ads ranging in price from $500,000-$750,000 per 30 seconds. ABC, which sold out its Super Bowl ad inventory last week, is expected to gross $75 million in game ad sales, more than $100 million for the day.

Nike has the longest ad, a 90-second state of the game soliloquy some time in the second quarter delivered by Stanley Craver, the crazed-fan, sneaker-sniffing character created by actor Dennis Hopper. That’s a $3 million hit for Nike.

Anheuser-Busch has purchased the most commercial time during the game, eight units for about $8 million, including the conclusion of its seventh Bud Bowl promotion, one 60-second spot with all those animated beer bottles blocking, tackling and talking trash that will air in the first quarter. That will be followed by two 30-second spots for Budweiser in the second quarter, two Bud Light spots in the third, and two more for Budweiser in the fourth. When you say Budweiser at the Super Bowl, you’ve said it all.

Worldwide, the game will be seen in 174 countries, 150 live, with a global audience of 750 million.

Is it any wonder two former governors bounced out of office in November, Mario Cuomo of New York and Ann Richards of Texas, will be peddling Doritos during the telecast?

Four of the top 10 and nine of the top 20 highest rated shows in the history of television are Super Bowls, including Super Bowl XVI between San Francisco and the Cincinnati Bengals in 1982.

That’s No. 4 on the all-time list, with a 49.1 rating (40 million households), trailing only the final episode of M*A*S*H (60.2 rating), the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas (53.3) and the concluding chapter of Roots (51.1). (A ratings point represents 920,000 homes.)

While network audiences are shrinking with the advent of cable and satellite television, the Super Bowl still attracts an audience that cannot be duplicated, with blanket coverage of every demographic, including about 40 percent women viewers.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, there will be little traffic and the streets should be relatively safe during the game, according to Kenny Bryson, a spokesman for Washington’s Metropolitan Police.

“Is it fair to say there’s no crime? No, crime goes on, but I think it goes down,” he said.

And for the other half of the population not interested in football, it’s the perfect opportunity to roam shopping malls and parks free from the usual weekend crowds.