Posted: Friday February 3, 2012 10:35AM ; Updated: Friday February 3, 2012 10:36AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>SCORECASTING

From humble beginnings, Super Bowl has exploded in stature

Story Highlights

The first Super Bowl was't a huge affair, but the game has grown in stature since

The fact that the game is a distinctly American event helps its popularity

Parity in the NFL adds suspense, as any city can win a championship any year

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In our book Scorecasting we tried to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom in sports and explore new territory. Using principles of behavioral economics, experimental psychology, and lots of data, we tried to explain everything from the source of home-field advantage to the Cubs' ritual awfulness to why -- even before Thanksgiving night 2000 -- there was evidence that Tiger Woods was mortal.

We invited readers to suggest other topics to explore, other ways to look at sports a little bit differently. The response has been overwhelming. The goal is to use this space to keep the conversation going. If you're interested in contributing -- anything from suggesting analytic quirks to explore or sending in academic research -- feel free to comment below or send an e-mail.

The American Football League and National Football League played their World Championship Game in 1967 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Technically, this was Super Bowl I, though no one had thought to title the game, much less give it a numeral, Roman or otherwise. The Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in front of something less than a capacity crowd. Don't believe it? Well, you'll have to take our word, because no one thought to keep a tape of the game.

From those humble origins, the Super Bowl has, of course, grown like Jack's beanstalk, metastacizing into...well, what exactly? It's an amalgam of an unofficial national holiday, a county fair, a weeklong convention, a made-for-tv extravaganza and, oh yeah, a championship sporting event. For all the hype and hyperbole in sports, calling this event "Super" seems almost understated. An unexpected birdie putt is super. This is something else entirely. Consider: inasmuch as we believe the NFL's self-serving figures, the Super Bowl's economic footprint outstrips the GNP of dozens of countries. Something on the order of 100 million Americans (i.e. one-third of us) will watch the game, more than turned out to vote in the last national election. Collectively, we will eat eight million avocados worth of guacamole.

Why, precisely, has the Super Bowl become a cultural phenomenon? For one, what's not to like? An ingredients list of the Super Bowl might read like this: sports, food, alcohol, parties, suspense -- stop us when we get to something disagreeable. It's a culmination of a season, so there's a sense of climax. It's held on a Sunday. In the dead of winter. At a time that works for all three U.S. zones.

Which leads to another factor: it is, distinctly and distinctively, our event. This is less an indictment of the U.S. than the reality of globalization, but what else is so singularly American? Jazz and rock-and-roll and movies are now exported and imported. Tangible products -- including our beloved iStuff -- are available everywhere and often made overseas. Held only in an American city, the Super Bowl features American players on American teams playing an American game. The NFL might be ambivalent about this patriotism -- deploying plans to colonize Europe and Asia while playing up the Americana -- but we're not.

At some level, the growth of the Super Bowl traces the growth of sports. Our appetite for games is darn near insatiable and the NFL is the biggest league of them all. The tradition of emphasizing the commercials was a stroke of marketing genius. (Despite the $3.5 million price tag, NBC sold its entire inventory of 30-second spots.) The parity of the NFL -- the only league where a team from Green Bay or, for that matter, Indy, competes even with franchises in New York -- also helps. Notice that the identity of the two teams in the Big Game, has strikingly little effect on Super Bowl ratings.

Good luck plays a role, too. There's been a shift toward reality programming, away from scripting and choreography. What's more captivating television than a winner-take-all season finale? Televisions that keep getting bigger and sharper are ideal for viewing parties. And it would be na´ve to do what the NFL does and ignore the impact of gambling. Predominantly through "unofficial" channels, the Super Bowl will trigger more than $1 billion in wagers. Plus, the point spread means that we often will watch the game (and commercials) even when the outcome is no longer in doubt.

Cities celebrate deliriously when their team wins the Super Bowl. But it's gotten to the point where these same municipalities rejoice when they win they simply win the rights to host the Big Game. Now it's Indy's turn to add to the growth chart of the largest annual sporting event -- an ever-expanding game that is not just super, but insuperable.

 
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