Every year millions of Americans and fans around the world watch the Super Bowl, the finale of the U.S. football season. The numbers keep growing – for this year’s game XLVIII, there were over 100 million viewers and the most expensive rates for TV commercials ever. At earlier games, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, etc. have performed at halftime. Commentators not only microscopically analyze the actual play, but ratings are given for the best and worst commercials during the game as well as announcers’ performances. Super Sunday has become a de facto American national holiday, although for many women it only means preparing endless bowls of guacamole and chips and serving beer. (Eight million pounds of the green stuff are consumed during the game with 14,500 tons of chips.)
And the Super Bowl just keeps growing. Beginning from an American phenomenon, the game has become global. I remember the excitement of the first Super Bowl in 1967 when I was in college in the U.S. The party was limited to sports fans. Much later, I remember going to a hotel in Geneva – the scene of the recent Iran nuclear talks - to watch the game on a large cable screen with expats, followed in later years by renting a room in the hotel to watch on limited cable TV. This past Sunday’s game was broadcast on regular Swiss TV as it was broadcast on regular stations around the world.
The game and U.S. football have become a trademark projection of American soft power. Or have they? At the same time the branding of American football tries to be universal, like basketball, a minor league affiliate folded in Germany. More and more complaints and court cases are arising in the States because of injuries to players, especially concussions. "I would not let my son play pro football," President Obama said in a profile published in the New Yorker.
The Game is losing interest for me, I must admit. I used to stay up watching until early in the morning; this year I turned it off very early in the first quarter. Old age? Bad game? Not my team playing? Perhaps all of the above. But I kept and keep thinking back to an article written over 30 years ago by Pete Hamill, the well-known New York journalist and author. Hamill was assigned to cover the Super Bowl in Miami for a New York tabloid. Instead of watching the game, he walked around the downtown slums of Miami. His article portrayed the contrast between the hoopla surrounding the game and the reality of those living outside the stadium. The comparison was devastating, somewhat like the current contrasts between the opulence of the Sochi Olympic venues and the dilapidated surroundings.
If the Super Bowl truly represents America and its soft power hegemony, maybe it’s time to reconsider what that means. Does the violence of American football relate to the violence of military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and violence within the gun-totting society itself? Does the enormous commercialization throughout the game relate to a consumer-addicted society with a fading middle class and disappearing industrial base?
After all, one should ask, what is so super about the Super Bowl?