The occasion of the Baltimore Ravens meeting the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII provides Americans the opportunity to acknowledge their excesses without feeling bad about or changing them. Super Bowl Sunday, unsurprisingly, is the second-highest day of food consumption behind Thanksgiving, a fact which has prompted the Department of Agriculture to issue a public service announcement to help with “food safety.” There’s also all the advertisements. This year the going rate for a 30-second tv spot is about $4 million, a metric that’s become as integral, if not more so, to our understanding of the Super Bowl as quarterback rating. All this tv-watching and gullet-stuffing has become too much, though, and so a grassroots movement is calling for the Monday following the Super Bowl to be declared a national holiday so that we can recover from our day of intense leisure and consumption.
That a football game with a name so immodest could have humble beginnings seems rather absurd. But Lamar Hunt, the late owner of the Kansas City Chiefs who suggested the term “Super Bowl” to name what up until then had been called, rather unimaginatively, the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, attributes his coinage to a toy his children played with, the Super Ball. “I probably interchanged the phonetics of ‘bowl’ and ‘ball,’” he once remarked. But perhaps Hunt was more prescient than he realized as the affinities between the unusually-high-bouncing balls and the annual NFL championship game seem more than just phonetic. Considering how the Super Bowl has metastatized into a week-long festival of media saturation and advertising bombardment that eventually, finally culminates in a football game, one can’t help but think of one of those Super Balls bouncing frantically, uncontrollably, endlessly around a room.
The Super Bowl has become so pervasive that the term extends far beyond its football context. Here are some of the non-football super bowls out there:
• For you corporate types, no shortage of super bowls exists. The Super Bowl of Indexing is an annual convention for those in the investment and financial management trade. Unlike the endless spectacle and exhibition that characterizes the actual “Super Bowl,” the Super Bowl of Indexing can’t escape the gloom-and-doom of an industry troubled by a stagnant economy and the lingering threat of global financial collapse. Where are the t-shirt guns when you really need them? Also targeting the corporate set (or those who finds themselves giving a lot of toasts), the Super Bowl of Speaking aims to help you hone your public-speaking skills and “to help you score a touchdown,” although it’s difficult to figure out what that might mean in the context of public speaking. It’s difficult to see what makes this a “super bowl” other than the fact that it takes place in January, but at least the organizers have made the effort to employ as much football terminology as possible in the most clichéd way possible. Not to be outdone when it comes to exhausting football terminology, the Super Bowl of Networking offers you access to a “playbook” with all the right moves courtesy of networking extraordinaire Joe Sweeney, who comes with a ringing endorsement from Bob Costas. Sweeney’s literally wrote the book (or a book?) on networking, Networking is a Contact Sport (which you’ll get an autographed copy of), a title that may explain why I’ve been such a failure at networking in my own life. In addition to the two new contacts you’ll make (!), the Super Bowl of Networking also features a “View of TCF Bank Stadium” (because nothing inspires quite like being able to see where the Minnesota Golden Gophers play football) and “Girl Scout Cookies On Sale” (because you won’t be able to find those anywhere else).
• A complement or antidote to the (chemically enhanced?) masculinity of the actual Super Bowl, The Super Bowl of Bridal Shows has been happening for the last 30 years in Toledo, OH. And unlike those more corporate super bowls, this one seems like an extravaganza worthy of the name “super bowl”: there’s even a polar bear marrying a manatee (is that a manatee?), which is the kind of disconcerting interspecies coupling that Rick Santorum warned us would happen if gay marriage were made legal (polar bear on manatee being just small step from “man on dog”).
• I’m not really sure what the language of the voiceover is here (something Scandanavian?), so I’m uncertain what he’s telling us about the Super Bowl of Machine Gun Shoots. You can glean a lot of context from watching the endless discharging of firearms, though. As the video informs us, there’s a real family atmosphere at the SBMGS, which has been passed down from father to son, and I wish I was more surprised when I found out that the event takes place in Kentucky. Here you can fire whatever you can physically carry or drag onto the firing range, which I initially thought was a bit of an overstatement until I saw people firing military-grade artillery at the end of the video. My suspicion is that this will be a banner year for the SBMGS what with all the talk of regulating firearms.
• The Super Bowl of Archaeology takes place on Super Bowl Sunday but earlier in the afternoon so you can consume both super bowls in one day (if you have the gumption). So before eating your weight in hot wings and finding out if Beyoncé is going to lip sync again, you can satisfy your (slightly more?) intellectual curiosity—thanks to the miracle of “CSI-like forensic science”—by finding out what ancient Semitic peoples may have looked like. And if Dr. Richard Freund’s wardrobe is any indication, this should be both fun and edifying: the fedora and leather jacket tell us he’s got the rakish charm of Indiana Jones, while the v-neck sweater and bowtie let us know that he’s an academic who takes his field seriously.
As the above events illustrate, calling your event the “super bowl of” anything is mostly just innocent (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) hyperbole. But tellingly these super bowls also have nothing to do with competition, let alone football, which gets lost when transporting the term to a different context. The event at the center—the game—becomes obscured, and “Super Bowl” implies some kind of the spectacle, so that, in a curious reversal, the activities peripheral to game are more representative of the Super Bowl than the actual Super Bowl. This is less than shocking since on Super Bowl Sunday most people prefer to be entertained by marketing departments and ad agencies than by the football game. But by comparison, when World Series is used to describe non-baseball events (the World Series of Poker, the World Series of Birding, the World Series of Innovation) competition remains at the heart of the event.
The Super Bowl has become such an enormous and ingrained part of our culture that, while it literally names a football game, it metaphorically suggests something else, a kind of meeting or gathering. But what kind meeting and what kinds of activities take place at that meeting vary so dramatically that when it comes to sussing out the meaning of super-bowl-as-metaphor, with apologies to devoted football fan Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there. Designating something, anything as a “super bowl of [insert activity or subject here]” has little to do with that actual event and more to do with its promotion, with publicizing its extraordinary, must-attend status. To use “Super Bowl” as a metaphor, then, is to sidestep content altogether and communicate purely on the level of hype, which is really what the Super Bowl is all about anyway. The term “Super Bowl” now reaches so far beyond a football game and has so many events and associations attached to it that it can’t possibly hold up under all that signifying weight. And it’s that meaninglessness, fittingly enough, that gives it its meaning.
Thanks, Tom. My friend Matt Nicholas wrote this one. I’m not sure who is going to win. San Francisco?
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