If we are to believe a new poll conducted by the market research and consulting firm Penn Schoen Berland, Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the most important day in American history — at least for men. If there’s any other way to interpret this, I don’t know what it is.
According to their research, “Male respondents rank it [the Super Bowl] more important than their wedding anniversaries. ‘It’s a live shared experience of 21st century Americana that celebrates competition, community, pop culture, and consumption,’ says pollster Jon Penn.”
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another is to ask if it’s possible that anything that celebrates pop culture and consumption in the 21st century has been around long enough to really qualify as “Americana.”
American men did rank Christmas as their favorite holiday or event, but only by a margin of 6 percentage points, and with this week’s game expected to set all-time ratings records, it looks as if the Super Bowl — that artificial holiday poised roughly at the midpoint of the winter months — will be passing Christmas.
No one has yet come up with a satisfactory answer as to why the Super Bowl has become our most important — and increasingly, our only — shared experience. Bill Maher took an amusing stab at an explanation as to why the Super Bowl has surpassed the World Series in popularity last Friday during his New Rules segment: “The American people need to understand what makes NFL football so great: socialism. That’s right. The NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poorer ones. . . . Football is built on an economic model of fairness . . . and baseball is built on an economic model where the rich always win and the poor have no chance.”
(Sorry to interrupt, but it’s baseball, not football, that takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poor. In football, thee really aren’t any “poor” teams — the national television contract generates so much revenue that the NFL doesn’t even need a team in America’s second largest TV market, Los Angeles. But let’s move on . . .)
Of the two teams playing in Super Bowl XLV, Maher noted, one is from Green Bay, Wisconsin, “a sleepy town of 100,000” and the other from Pittsburgh, a “small market city whose baseball team can’t get near the World Series.”
Maher’s routine was funny and timely. And it’s also dead wrong. The football-as-socialism, baseball-as-free market capitalism theme has become popular in
recent years, particularly among liberals who want to use sports as a club with which to bash America’s conservatives over the head. Good for them, but the football vs. baseball comparison doesn’t work.
It’s true that Major League Baseball, compared to the NFL, has an almost absurdly unstructured economy; so-called big market teams such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are in a different stratosphere than small market franchises such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals because most of their income derives from local television contracts.
Maher is correct, more or less, when he says, “The NFL takes all the wealth and puts it in a big commie pie and slices it up 32 ways, one for each team” because “they don’t want anyone to fall too far behind.” Actually, NFL owners could care less about who falls behind; they split the national television revenue in equal shares in order to keep teams from getting into bidding wars for players and coaches.
The point, though few seem to understand it, is that baseball’s relatively unfettered system produces fairer results than in pro football. Since the first Super Bowl was played in January 1967, 27 different teams have played in the Super Bowl, exactly the same number of different team that have played in the last 44 World Series. Since the first Super Bowl, 17 different teams have won the championship, compared to 20 in baseball. (And MLB, during most of this time, has had fewer teams than the NFL.)
Moreover, football’s policy of equal wealth distribution seems to discourage a lot of teams from even trying to compete. Just eight teams have won 31 of the 44 Super Bowls. Nearly one-third of NFL teams have never won a Super Bowl, and four teams have never even been there. The Packers and Steelers may be “small market” teams, but by Sunday night they will have won almost a quarter of all the Super Bowls played.
Maher rightly decries the chances of the Pittsburgh Pirates of making it to the World Series, but I’ll give him odds that they make it to the Series before the Detroit Lions, who have never been to a Super Bowl and haven’t won an NFL championship in 53 seasons, play in the Big One.
“In football,” says Maher, “The Green Bay Packers have just as much chance of making it to the Super Bowl as the New York Jets.” Actually, a far greater chance. The Packers have been in the Super Bowl five times in 44 years, the Jets only once.
So it isn’t parity that lights our football fire. It may not even be football itself, at least not the game as played on the field, which is virtually incoherent to fans seeing a game for the first time.
Speaking of which, back in 1999, baseball’s Blue Ribbon panel determined that more than 95 percent of all pro football fans had never seen a game in person and that nearly 99 percent had never seen their favorite team in person. Without its multiple camera angles, instant replays and halftime shows that look as if they were directed by Leni Riefenstahl, pro football as we know it wouldn’t exist.
The Super Bowl is less of a sporting event than a television event. A telling statistic in the Penn Schoen Berland poll is that 31 percent of those asked “say they watch more for the commercials” than the game itself. And judging from the number of articles and shows on best remembered Super Bowl ads — Friday night, CBS aired “Super Bowls Greatest Commercials 2011,” which allowed viewers to vote on their favorite — many recall the commercials without being able to name the Super Bowls they saw them in.
To SBNation.com’s Andrew Sharp, Super Sunday “is not even the best sports holiday of the year. Half the time, the game’s a complete dud. Also, it attracts a lot of people that know nothing about sports, but insist on talking throughout the game.” Or as veteran sportswriter Dan Jenkins once told me in an interview, “Most fans’ passion for the Super Bowl is miles wide and inches deep. It’s a TV special, and most people’s memory of it extends back no further than last year’s reruns.”
Have you ever noticed that no network has ever aired a show about the greatest Super Bowl games? Or that PBS has never produced an eleven-part series called Football?
Director and producer Ken Burns told me last year, “In 2004 the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. About three months later, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl. About four times as many people saw that Super Bowl as watched the World Series, but when they did a poll of New England fans, the respondents said, by a margin of four to one, that the Red Sox World Series trophy meant more to them than the Patriots’ Lombardi Trophy. What does that tell you?”
Well, it might tell us that the most important day in our lives probably isn’t one we spent in front of a television, even an HD widescreen.