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A Billion People Can Be Wrong

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Are Johannesburgers really interested in Ben Roethlisberger?
Are Johannesburgers really interested in Ben Roethlisberger?
John Iacono/SI
Sportswriter of the Year
Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin has been named National Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

Rushin adds this to the long list of distinctions he's earned at SI, including four National Magazine Award nominations.

It marks the 18th time an SI writer has been named Sportswriter of the Year, the most of any newspaper or magazine since the award's inception in 1959.

That recorded phrase you hear while on hold for half an hour -- "Your call is important to us" -- means precisely the opposite of what it says. In truth, your call is not important to them, or they'd have answered it by now.

Sports are filled with similar expressions of insincerity, a Bizarro World in which the truth can be entirely inverted, so that "It's not about the money" means "It's all about the money" and "I have never taken steroids, period" means "I have taken steroids, exclamation mark." A "vote of confidence," as every coach knows, is code for "You're fired."

So when we're constantly told that the Super Bowl is "an event watched by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide" (The Detroit News) or that the Steelers and the Seahawks "will be seen by a billion people in 225 countries" (Vancouver Province), it pays to do the math.

How exactly did we arrive at what the Ottawa Citizen calls the "Super Bowl's billion-plus TV audience"? Last year the Super Bowl was watched by 86.1 million Americans, according to Nielsen Media Research, and by 3.1 million Canadians. That makes at least 89.2 million North American viewers, or less than one tenth of the alleged audience worldwide, where interest in NFL would seem to diminish with distance. Are Johannesburgers really interested in Ben Roethlisberger?

Initiative, a New York-based media research firm, measured the global audience for last year's Super Bowl at 93 million people, with 98 percent of those viewers in North America. That would mean roughly 2 million people outside North America watched the Super Bowl. It's an impressive figure for a sport the rest of the world doesn't play and a game that kicks off at ungodly hours on much of the planet. But it's still 907 million viewers short of a billion. The NFL only (and artfully) says that the Super Bowl is broadcast in 225 countries to a potential audience of a billion people. So when Bloomberg News reports that Super Bowl XL "will be broadcast to an audience of 1 billion viewers," the news service is mistaken, though it's a bank error that works in the NFL's favor. All of which is to say: My baloney has a first name, it's S-U-P-E-R.

This billion-viewer myth, as unshakable as any urban legend, isn't a lie. Rather, it's the dictionary definition of hype: "Greatly exaggerated publicity intended to excite public interest in something." And so 93 million becomes a billion-plus.

Nobody seems to mind. For months the best-selling book in America was a non-fiction memoir that is largely fiction. The linguists at the American Dialect Society named truthiness the word that best exemplified 2005. Truthiness is defined as something "one wishes to be true, rather than facts."

So when Kobe Bryant scores 81 points in a game and says afterward, "It's about the W, that's why I turned it on," he appears to be less engaged in truth than in truthiness. (He wants to believe what he just said.) When he says he'd have been "sick as a dog" had he scored 81 points in a loss -- well, that smells more like b.s. (Even he can't be buying that, can he?)

By now most sports fans have what Hemingway called a writer's greatest asset: a "built-in, shock-proof" b.s. detector. So when Ron Artest's agent says his client "did not want to be traded to Sacramento weeks ago and does not want to be traded to Sacramento now," you're confident that in a matter of hours Artest will declare himself -- as he did last week -- "very happy" to be traded to Sacramento. Some athletes are so transparently insincere as to be inoffensive. Like the airline that bumps you, then apologizes for any "inconvenience," they are simply doing what they do.

Likewise, it's hard to feign shock at Super Bowl malarkey. Seldom is truth more routinely inverted than in the days leading up to the game, when a player can get an award for "high moral character" and solicit a prostitute on the same night -- and choreographed halftime nudity is somberly attributed to a "wardrobe malfunction." That was the night that Janet Jackson decided, in the words of Newsday, to "bare her body to a billion people."

Which brings us back to those 907 million invisible Super Bowl viewers. The NFL and Fox say that 133 million Americans saw some part of last year's Super Bowl. But even by that charitable measure, 163 million Americans did not. That may be the most staggering Super Bowl statistic: A sizable majority of Americans will somehow avoid watching a single minute of the game.

As with the 52 million people who have bought Michael Bolton recordings, you don't personally know any of these Super Bowl heretics, but they exist. Which is more than we can say for 90 percent of the people who supposedly watch.

Issue date: February 6, 2006