The Greatest Show on Earth

8 Feb

This past weekend, the 47th edition of the Super Bowl was watched by nearly 110 million people in the United States. Advertisers shelled out an average of $3.8 million for a 30-second television spot. What many people often forget is that the reach of the Super Bowl does not stop with television ads or the halftime show. The Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA), published the results of its annual Super Bowl consumer intentions survey. Looking at the numbers, it becomes clear just how big an economic event the Super Bowl is. Americans were expected to spend an average of $68.54 on Super Bowl related merchandise. Some 74% of Americans intended to buy food and beverages for the Super Bowl. Incredibly, RAMA estimated that there would be 3.9 million Super Bowl-associated furniture purchases and 7.5 million television purchases. Some 9.2 million Americans planned to watch the Super Bowl in a restaurant or a bar. Total Super Bowl related spending was expected to be $12.279 billion. Clearly, the economic impact of the Super Bowl is enormous and wide-reaching.

There was one particularly interesting question about what the most important part of the Super Bowl was. Only 45.3% of respondents cited the actual game as most important, with 26.2% citing the commercials as most important, 18.8% seeing the Bowl as a chance to get together with friends, and 9.6% tuning in mainly for the half time show. It should be clear that for the majority of Americans who have a passing interest in football, or whose teams are out of contention, the Super Bowl represents more of a social event than an actual athletic contest. While the Olympics had its fair share of glamorous advertising, the idea of competition among nations seemed to trump the commercial aspect. By comparison, the London games led to a total of £100 million in Olympic apparel sales, roughly $160 million. The seven week games are expected to bring in £5.1 billion in economic stimulus over the next three years. It’s true that the United Kingdom is a smaller nation than the United States. At 60 million-odd people, it has roughly a fifth of America’s population. Yet, when you consider that the relatively short duration of the Super Bowl, and the international nature of the Olympics, it is evident that the Super Bowl is king in terms of economic impact.

All these facts, figures, and comparisons are different ways of arriving at one conclusion: the Super Bowl is a consumer event, a spending bonanza, and increasingly less focused on the actual sport of football.

On the surface, the Super Bowl is all about differences. It’s about competition. Our team versus theirs on the field, this brand versus another during ads. We each have teams we identify with, and brands that we are loyal to. For some reason, these symbols and signals are special. Rarely do we ask why. What makes our team better than another? Is it geographic attachment? Do our teams represent an integral part of the community?

In Europe, soccer teams are a part of the community’s fabric. In England, clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool saw their fortunes rise as their home cities developed during the industrial revolution. Soccer became an outlet for the working class to let loose, and clubs soon became inextricably linked to cities. Youth academies would draw in local youth, and develop the talent. In Spain, soccer clubs fill a similar role. Barcelona is more than just a club. It represents Catalonian pride, and nearly the entire team is homegrown, the products of years of training and development within Barcelona’s youth academies.

In the United States, I find it hard to see football teams fulfilling the same role. The NFL was founded in 1920, with the first Super Bowl not taking place until 1967. By that time, westward expansion was long over, and the cities that hosted football teams were already well-developed. Teams did not grow organically with their cities, but were rather hoisted upon large cities and media markets. There is no long historical basis for a deep emotional attachment between fans, teams, and players. Looking at any of the rosters of professional teams, nearly all of the players were not homegrown. Part of it is the nature of the sport; there are no football youth academies. Players head for whatever team can pay them the most.

These trends serve to validate Baudrillard’s thesis of an artificially differentiated society. Commentators and team apparel serve to divide us into different camps. We feel intense emotional attachment to the successes and failures of our team. Yet in the end, every team is a commercial enterprise, interested in making money for the team owners. Imagine if next year every team featured a different roster of players wearing the jersey. Is it still the same team?

The Super Bowl is a demonstration of the power of differentiation. As much as Coke and Pepsi would like us to think that their products are different, in reality most people wouldn’t notice the difference if you substituted one product for another. Indeed, Warren Buffett, major shareholder of the Coca Cola Company and self-proclaimed Cherry Coke addict, couldn’t tell Dr. Pepper from his beloved Coke.

Corporate entities have gotten so good at eliciting emotion from us that we are blinded to the fact that the NFL is made up of 32 teams who have much more in common than not. Their success in doing so has led to the creation of the spectacle that is professional sports, and drawn us to watch events like the Super Bowl year after year.


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