Sunday, 3 February 2013


As I am in New Orleans to broadcast the Super Bowl for BBC television, I recorded an audio essay for the BBC World Service's Weekend programme, for whom I have been a studio guest a number of times. It was broadcast between 7-9 this morning; if you can access the World Service online, you can probably find it, but if you can't, here's my original script. I don't know if the recording was then edited down, and I have added one line to it as well, but this is a look at the Super Bowl aimed at a worldwide audience assumed to know very little indeed about it...

Forget Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, or even the Fourth of July—Super Bowl Sunday may be America's biggest holiday—at least it's the day when more Americans indulge themselves, at the same time, in their REAL national pastime, watching television.

At 6:25 Eastern more than 45 per cent of the country will turn on the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League. At halftime, reservoir levels will drop all across the country as millions of people flush simultaneously. The real audience is probably bigger than the television ratings show—because people watch together, with families, at parties, in bars, & the possibility of reaching some 160 million or more viewers means a 30 second commercial during the game costs $4 million. The three networks who rotate broadcasting the Super Bowl reap a revenue bonanza that more than justifies their three years covering the regular season without the championship game.

The adverts themselves become must-see items. Audiences anticipate mock football matches between puppies or beer bottles with almost as much enthusiasm as they do the real thing. For those not crazy about football there's the pregame show—with Alicia Keys, and the halftime show—a 40 minute extravaganza starring Beyonce. Bookies are offering bets on everything from what colour Beyonce's hair will be, or whether Keyes' version of the National Anthem will run over or under 2 mins 15 seconds, to even the score of the game itself.

Oh yes, the game. It matches the Baltimore Ravens, named after Edgar Allen Poe's poem and coached by John Harbaugh, against the San Francisco 49ers, named after the 19th century gold rush and coached by John's little brother Jim. As far as the media is concerned, it's Harbaughgeddon! sibling rivalry since Cain and Abel's will have been discussed in such depth by more people so unqualified to analyse it!

That's because there are 5,000 media covering one game, and they have little else to talk about. On media day, Tuesday, hundreds of them descended on the players scattered at podiums around the stadium, all trying to ask a question so ridiculous no one else will have thought of it before. TV Azteca sent a woman reporter dressed in very little at all, insuring only that many American males can now name Mexico's second-biggest network. For the rest of the week the media talk only to each other and any ex-player with a story to tell or something to sell. They wander around the media center looking to add to the din of a hundreds of hosts shouting into the vast void of sports talk radio.

Or they talk about the miracle of New Orleans and its recovery. The city has always been America's most exotic, but during super bowl week it becomes a theme park, a kind of santizied version of mardi gras, the excesses of football replacing the somewhat wilder excess of Fat Tuesday. Large portions of the French quarter have been taken over by television networks, meaning Jackson Square, right opposite the French Market and Cafe du Monde, is now off-limits to anyone not wearing broadcast credentials and makeup.

There are other stories: will the Ravens Ray Lewis retire at 37 with a second championship ring? Did he use New Zealand deer antler velvet extract to help heal a torn biceps? Deer antler velvet; I am not making this up. Oddly enough, when a former 49er, tackle Kwame Harris, was arrested back in San Francisco this week after a restaurant scuffle with his boyfriend, it re-triggered an ongoing controversy over the acceptance of gay players in America's most macho game. And how will the league address the growing issue of concussions and brain damage, especially considering this Super Bowl matches two teams known for their physicality, in a game not known for lacking it. 

Finally, however, the game will kick off, and, despite frequent breaks for commercials and Beyonce, America's eyes will be focussed on the field. Which Harbaugh will triumph? In a game that generates gold, to the extent that they award the winner's trophy not to a player, but to the team's owner, it may be the gold rush 49ers, and brother Jim, who win in the end.

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