Super Bowl Hoopla

Feb 11, 2011

Forty five years ago, the Super Bowl wasn’t even the Super Bowl.

They called it the NFL-AFL Championship game, until one of the founders renamed it after watching his grandson play with a “High Bouncing Ball” – a super ball.

Tickets were only fifteen bucks for that first game, and they barely sold half of those, leaving some 40,000 empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum.   

A 30-second ad cost only $42,000, and they weren’t any different than the ads they showed the previous weekend.

The half-time show featured three college marching bands, including one you might have seen from the University of Michigan.

Over the next couple decades, of course, the event became a veritable national holiday.  Tickets now sell for thousands of dollars, and ads for millions.  The game attracts more than 100 million viewers in the U.S. alone.

The hoopla surrounding the game has exploded, too.

Instead of getting college marching bands to perform at halftime, they branched out into other forms of entertainment. For reasons I’ll never understand, that included four appearances by a group called “Up With People!”  Or, as the Simpsons called them, “those clean-cut young go-getters, Hooray for Everything!’”

Up with People?  As opposed to what?  “Down With Humans!”?

Besides, I don’t think we can afford to be that conclusive.  “Up With People” sounds great, so long as we’re not talking all people. 

One year they devoted the show to America’s 200th anniversary, then the 100th anniversary of Hollywood, the 40th anniversary of the Peanuts’ comic strip, then the 25th anniversary salute to – itself, the Super Bowl.

You kind of got the feeling they were running out of ideas.

That all changed in 1993, when Michael Jackson performed the half-time show, and his hair caught fire, or his sister suffered a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ or maybe they conducted the OJ trial live on the fifty yard line. I’m sorry, but these events have started to blur for me.

The point is, the half-time show became a big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that the ratings were higher for the show, than the game. Most fans said they would rather miss a play than an ad.

Style had officially triumphed over substance.

But that might have been a good thing, because the game itself usually stunk.

Of the first 30 Super Bowls, only seven, less than a quarter, were within a touchdown.  But since then, more than half the past 15 Super Bowls have been that close.

And that’s good, too, because now all the stuff around it – the national anthems, the half-time shows, the ads – have become almost unwatchable. 

On Sunday we heard Christina Aguilara butcher the Star Spangled Banner, which was bad enough.  But then we heard the Black Eyed Peas butcher their own songs, which was even worse (though, in fairness, I heard the soundman screwed up the whole production, which couldn’t have helped).

The only thing that matched the quality of the game, which was great, once more, was the two-minute Chrysler ad.

It was as much about their car as it was about the city that spawned it.  It certainly beat piling on the poor city, which every hack out there has already done. And it was better than the dopey old campaign, “Say Nice Things About Detroit.”  Yes, and “Up With People,” while you’re at it.

No, it was authentic, it was serious, it was sincere.  It was real.

When you look back at the checkered history of Super Bowl games and shows, that simple ad stood out as something special.