Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Super Bowl Musings

This wasn't the article I wanted to write. I was planning on doing a comparison between the World Series and the Super Bowl, and explaining ultimately why I preferred the World Series. Less full of hype and commercialism, you see. No chance of finding the seventh inning stretch getting more media coverage than the main event of the game itself. Much more likely to end up with a deserving winner in a 7-game contest that ebbs and flows than a three-hour blast of high intensity.

And yet, in the build up to last week, I found out I was completely wrong. Yes, there is something that appeals to the sporting romantic in me about the World Series. It is certainly less unsullied by corporatism than its more famous cousin (although the teams that contest it usually have the advantage of significantly better buying power). But one of the major advantages of the Super Bowl is that it is very definitely a climax, rather than an anti-climax.

There isn't much better in sport than a close 7-game World Series (except for a close, high-quality Test match, which drags the tension out better than any other game known to man)- the 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees clash is indelibly etched in my memory. Yet, if like this year, one team jumps out to an early lead, it is incredibly rare for it to be pulled back. As I blogged back in October, the Red Sox victory was actually an anticlimax given the emotional intensity of their victory over the Yankees in the Championship series.

Whereas the Super Bowl itself is always an event. Yes, it can sometimes occur that the match is a total blowout. But there is a real sense of climax to the season; for all that the hype gets in the way of the game (and even more so since a bye week was introduced) there is a clearly defined pinnacle to the season. Indeed, in many ways it is the hype that has made the Super Bowl the event that it is - one of the last truly national moments in American culture. Perhaps even one of the few truly national moments left anywhere else in the world.

Yes, the Super Bowl may find problems as it tries to spread the event around as many different NFL cities as possible. This indeed shows how there is a symbiosis between the event and the game. Without there being a true sense of occasion - the sense that can only really be given if all those attending can be in close proximity to the venue (and not staying many miles out of town as this year at Jacksonville) - then the event will begin to lose some of its appeal. As strange as it sounds, it is the hype that actually makes the Super Bowl as great as it is.

Because football, due to its physical nature, is a game that can only be decided in a three-hour duel. And the hype is necessary to give the sense of occasion that makes the game worth staying up till four in the morning for (for UK viewers at least!). Maybe it says something about the nature of modern sport that adding irrelevances like the half-time show can actually add to the occasion.

But such hype couldn't actually stand up to scrutiny if the product didn't match. There are regular Super Bowl blowouts - two years ago, for example, the game between Tampa Bay and Oakland was barely a contest even from the end of the first quarter. Even this year, the three-point margin made the game sound much closer than it really was (over as a contest by the start of the fourth quarter). Yet more often than not, the game is thrilling. The build-up may go completely over the top, but football is a high-intensity sport. The sense of occasion adds to the tension which makes the game itself such a compelling spectacle. And ultimately so much more memorable than the World Series.