Super Bowl Sunday: A National Holiday and a Global Curiosity

Mark Dyreson & Peter Hopsicker. The International Journal of the History of Sport. Volume 34, Issue 1. 2017.

On 15 January 1967, the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) staged the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, a contest that would soon become known in common parlance as the Super Bowl. Held in the mammoth Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that seated more than 90,000 spectators, the game featured the NFL’s Green Bay Packers against the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs in a spectacle that celebrated the recently engineered merger between the two rival leagues—a deal that would spawn over the next half century the most powerful sporting corporation in American culture. The new conglomerate, which kept the moniker ‘NFL’ to identify itself, reigns in the twenty-first century as the most influential and lucrative entertainment behemoth in the national landscape, a multi-billion dollar industrial giant that dominates US television broadcasting and aspires to global mega-event status.11. For insights into the history of the Super Bowl see Richard C. Crepeau, NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Don Weiss with Chuck Day, The Making of the Super Bowl: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Sporting Event (Contemporary Books: Chicago, 2003); Craig Coenen, From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005); Michael MacCambridge, America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation(New York: Anchor Books Random House, 2005); Michael Oriard, Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Thomas Patrick Oates and Zack Furness (eds), The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives(Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2014); Mark Dyreson and Jaime L. Schultz, American National Pastimes—A History (London: Routledge, 2015).View all notes

Ticket prices for the original Super Bowl ranged between a reasonable $6 and $12, but more than 35,000 seats remained empty on game day as the Packers dismantled the Chiefs, 35-10. For the only time in Super Bowl history two major television networks, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting System (NBC) broadcast the game to a relatively modest national viewership of 60 million, a much smaller audience than future Super Bowls would command. Neither pregame shows nor special commercials designed to debut during the broadcast accompanied Super Bowl I. When NBC failed to return from a commercial in time for the second-half kickoff, league officials had the teams re-kick. The half-time show featured standard football fare, performances by Grambling College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Arizona marching bands. Those same musicians rather than a world-famous pop star performed the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ before the game commenced. From many perspectives, the inaugural Super Bowl fell short of achieving its ‘super’ superlative. The game was hardly the cultural touchstone it would later become in American society. Indeed, it was just another game. As journalist Fred Clair, who chronicled Super Bowl I for the Pomona (California) Progress Bulletin, recalled a half-century afterwards: ‘Could anybody have predicted where it would be (nearly) 50 years later? Certainly not’.

On 7 February 2016, fifty-one years after Super Bowl I, a sell-out crowd of more than 70,000 packed NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, for Super Bowl LI. Country music star Luke Bryan crooned the national anthem; pop music icon Lady Gaga performed the half-time extravaganza; and pregame television shows ran for hours before kickoff. More than 111 million American television viewers tuned in-a conservative estimate based on a ratings system that only measures televisions in private homes and does not account for the 20-25% of viewers who watch in public settings such as bars, churches, and restaurants. A thirty-second commercial slot cost more than $5 million; and Fox network managed to get back from its lucrative advertising schedule so the NFL did not have to redo the second half kickoff.

A half-century after the NFL’s first attempt at adorning its season-culminating championship football game with a spectacular atmosphere, Super Bowl LI demonstrated that the venture has become more than just a game. The Super Bowl is now an American institution, producing an experience that exudes the qualities of a quintessential American holiday—a holiday that, paradoxically, frequently seems to treat the NFL’s championship game as an ancillary to the festivities. In the five decades between Super Bowl I and Super Bowl LI, the popularity of Super Bowl Sunday has exploded. It has become the largest shared experience within the national culture. More Americans watch the Super Bowl than vote in elections, attend religious services, or commemorate patriotic sacrifices. Indeed, those who express disinterest in the Super Bowl can swiftly incur accusations that they are un-American.44. For a fuller treatment of the argument that the Super Bowl has become the newest American holiday, see, Peter Hopsicker and Mark Dyreson, ‘Super Bowl Sunday,’ in Len Travers (ed), The Historical Dictionary of American Holidays, vol I, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), 30-55.View all notes

After several episodes in which it remained just another football game, the Super Bowl became an American mega-event by the mid-1970s and Americans increasingly viewed it as the nation’s newest holiday. Since the 1970s, succeeding Super Bowl instalments have pushed the boundaries of nationalistic and patriotic displays, tested the scope of the metaphors describing conspicuously consumptive practices, and branded the event as a national holiday. So powerful has the appeal of this annual sporting festival become that the normal activities of an American Sunday are frequently reorganized to accommodate the game. Corporations spend millions of dollars on television commercials designed specifically for the Super Bowl. Some of them only air once, at the Super Bowl, during this competitive parade of advertising spots that has come to be known as the ‘Ad Bowl’. Superstar celebrities of all genera vie to sing the national anthem or headline the half-time extravaganza on a stage viewed by over two-thirds of Americans. Politicians seek to associate themselves with the all-American nature of the production—the ostentatious displays of red, white, and blue, the fly-overs of military aircraft, and the scenes of armed forces service men and women participating in the day from foreign lands.

In the United States, the holiday nature of Super Bowl Sunday reveals itself in a variety of ways. Like other holidays, the Super Bowl leads Americans to alter their daily routines. Businesses close while celebrants meticulously plan profligate parties. People gather for a common purpose—to participate in the shared rituals that have developed to celebrate the spectacle. Similar in many ways to Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday gatherings include feasts of specific food and drink—chicken wings and crudités, chips and guacamole, fried finger foods and pizza, soda and beer, Bloody Marys and other football-themed cocktails. Super Bowl Sunday also evokes overt displays of nationalism that rival the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, and other patriotic holidays. Super Bowl commemorations have included not only the singing of the national anthem in front of a football-field-sized flag held by American service men and women, but also pregame recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of Independence. The Super Bowl has included brazenly nationalistic elements since its inception and has served as an official kick-off to the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, a pep rally for the Gulf War in 1991, as well as a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2002. Furthermore, Super Bowl Sunday stands as the day when Americans celebrate conspicuous consumption—a public demonstration of the American ability to buy things—that rivals Christmas and other gift-buying holidays. Marketers spend billions of dollars on television advertising to take advantage of the huge captive audience ensconced in front of television sets to hawk everything from beer and avocados to computers and automobiles. Indeed, the Super Bowl’s dedication to the celebration of consumption makes it a part of the driving force underneath modern American culture.

In 2017, the Super Bowl’s focus on consumption and advertising connected the nation’s newest holiday to highly charged political dialogues in the United States. With debates over immigrants, borders, race, and gender issues raging through the American political landscape, major corporations entered the fray with Super Bowl spots that challenged the positions staked out by the recently elected presidential administration of Donald J. Trump. The automaker Audi aired an advertisement promoting equal pay for equal work that evoked the debates about gender equity that had roiled the 2016 presidential election. Coca-Cola resurrected a 2014 spot that featured a multi-ethnic cast singing ‘America the Beautiful,’ evoking an image of racial harmony in stark contrast to the racial and ethnic tensions surrounding the Trump administration. Google ran an advertisement with a similar theme that showcased American diversity and featured a ‘welcome home’ cake at the end of the video collage. Anheuser-Busch In Bev, the enormous US-based global brewery chain, aired a Budweiser beer advertisement that chronicled the anti-immigrant challenges faced by founder Adolphus Busch as he migrated from Germany to the United States in the 1850s, providing a historical spin on the quest for the ‘American dream’ and twenty-first century perspectives on the merits of immigration. Airbnb sponsored a spot that challenged the Trump administration’s ‘travel ban.’

In the most provocative of the corporate assaults on Trumpian ideology, the building supplies and home improvement chain 84 Lumber produced a spot chronicling the quest of a Latina mother and daughter to migrate from Mexico to the promised land of the United States. The advertisement that ran on television ended there, after Fox television, which broadcast Super Bowl LI and also owns the Fox News network that has been consistently supportive of the early days of the Trump administration, refused to air the rest of the spot. 84 Lumber directed viewers who wanted to see the rest of the ad to their company website. So many people sought to watch it that the site crashed repeatedly. When it did work, viewers saw the mother and daughter make it to the United States, only to be confronted by President Trump’s ‘great wall’. A construction worker using 84 Lumber supplies had conveniently carved a door in the fortress, however, beckoning the refugees to the other side. The advertisement ended with a blunt rejection of anti-immigration sentiment: ‘The will to succeed is always welcome here’.

The role of the US in the world, and the world in the US, has historically wafted around Super Bowls. The American variant of football showcased at the Super Bowl remains a remarkably parochial spectacle while association football (soccer in US parlance) has become the ‘world’s game.’ The NFL has long harboured designs of transforming the Super Bowl into a global mega-event that would rival World Cups and Olympic games. League officials have for the past several decades touted potential audiences of more than a billion tuning into global telecasts of the game. In spite of the NFL’s expansionist rhetoric, however, Super Bowl Sunday certainly does not hold the day-altering power in the rest of the world that it that wields in the US.

Still, the Super Bowl has made beachheads in other nations, especially across the border where President Trump plans his massive wall in Mexico, as well across the US border to the north in Canada. Indeed, Mexican and Canadian telecasts started with Super Bowl I in 1967 and have built substantial audiences in both nations. In addition, from the early history of the Super Bowl, the American Forces Network (AFN) has beamed the game to foreign outposts for American military personnel. AFN signals have bled from US bases into the local airwaves where some of the locals who view themselves as curious students of American habits seem to be developing affinity for American-style football. Pockets of interest in the Super Bowl have sprouted in a variety of nations, particularly in Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Australia. However, the recent annual statements in NFL press releases that claim global Super Bowl audiences of more than a billion viewers in as many as 200 nations should be read with tremendous scepticism. Still, the Super Bowl has become a growing global curiosity, and the global dynamics of the consumption of football reveal much about the international dynamics of American ‘soft power’ and cultural influence in the new globalized social networks that are emerging as consumption increasingly powers not only the US but also the world economy.

This collection of essays investigates the historical transformation of Super Bowl Sunday from a mere professional football championship game to a much-anticipated annual event of shared experience firmly fixed to the American holiday calendar as well as a growing and influential worldwide curiosity. With an assemblage of distinguished scholars from the United States, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan, these analyses of the first half-century of Super Bowl history provide insight into the political, cultural, and economic development of this relatively young social phenomenon.

Several scholars from the United States provide local perspective. Richard Crepeau from the University of Central Florida examines the historic and rapid development of the day—a day that quickly included all of the tenets of a holiday festival in the United States—by focusing on its explicit displays of and connections to excess. Penn State Altoona’s Peter Hopsicker uses the prominent sport critic Robert Lipsyte’s concept of ‘Superbowling’ to provide a historical narrative of the commentary surrounding each Super Bowl. Three predominant threads emerge from this examination that peg Super Bowl Sunday as a day of conspicuous consumption, shared experience, and national holiday. Matthew McAllister and Elysia Galindo-Ramirez, also from Penn State (University Park), focus on the conspicuous consumption aspects of the day through an analysis of Super Bowl commercials—an aspect of the day that took on a life of its own in the 1980s. Utilizing the concepts of ‘spectacular consumption’ and ‘commodity audience’, the authors identify Super Bowl commercials as a model for contemporary advertising—one viewed as a legitimate form of entertainment culture.

Moving beyond the borders of the United States, four other scholars provide insight into the worldview of Super Bowl Sunday. To the north, Craig Greenham of the University of Windsor (Canada) compares the Grey Cup to the Super Bowl through the lenses of the Canadian media. He finds that while the Super Bowl garners a significant presence on the Canadian calendar, Canadian sports pundits continue to promote the Grey Cup as the anti-Super Bowl—a tactic that rebukes American cultural imperialism and excess. Across the Atlantic, Ian Adams of the University of Central Lancashire (UK) provides a history of American football and the Super Bowl in the British imagination. After a look into the history of American football’s development in the United Kingdom, Adams suggests that Britons regard watching the Super Bowl in the same way they view taking a one-day holiday to another land. Lars Dzikus (University of Tennessee) explores the German imagination and the Super Bowl. Using accounts from Germans who established American football leagues in Germany as well as other media accounts, Dzikus discovers that the Super Bowl was one way that Germans constructed the images, ideas, and symbols that they associated with the US. Kohei Kawashima of Musashi University, Japan, situates the growth of American football within Japanese history, society, and culture. After a discussion of the past and present status of American football in Japan, Kawashima offers his assessments of the future of the game and the Super Bowl in the Far East.

In the collection’s final essay, Mark Dyreson of Penn State University (University Park) assesses American perceptions of how the world views the US through the Super Bowl. Dyreson investigates the growing globalization of Super Bowl Sunday and discovers that most international interest exists in Canada and Mexico. Beyond that, fascination with the Super Bowl is confined to a few unique ‘glocal’ markets scattered around the world. The widespread and intense worldwide interest imagined by the NFL simply does exist. Still, Dyreson notes that in some parts of the world, especially where fascinated locals strive to establish an American football culture, the Super Bowl has become a burgeoning curiosity.

In its first fifty years the Super Bowl has evolved in the United States from just another championship football game to the largest and in some ways the most significant shared experience in American culture. As the NFL and the US television networks that stage the spectacle seek to globalize their product, they have met more indifference than resistance. For American audiences, the halcyon days of the Super Bowl were not in the 1960s when the game first sprang to life. The ‘golden age’ began in the last two decades of the twentieth century and has continued into the twenty-first century, a period in which the Super Bowl became an indelible component of the nation’s culture. Whether over the next half-century the NFL and US television corporations can create a global interest in American football remains to be seen.