The Super Bowl
Not Just Any Given Sunday
Baseball may own the title of America’s pastime, but football certainly owns the hearts of sports fans nationwide. Rough-and-tumble and aggressive, as well as complex and elegant, football has viewers hooked. Add munchies and beer and you’ve got a recipe for a ratings champion—and its accompanying astronomical advertising dollars. Whether cheering the home team or competing in a fantasy league, Americans are always ready for some football.
“God bless fantasy football. There are many things a man can do with his time…and this is better than those things.” So says protagonist Pete Eckhart in the pilot of FX’s sitcom The League. Brash, dirty and offensive, the show centers on a group of lifelong friends obsessed with their fantasy football league. Wives, kids, jobs—all are side dishes to the league. Pete ends his marriage when his disapproving wife interferes with his true love: the league’s championship trophy, “the Shiva.”
In a virtual football season that runs concurrently with the regular pro season, real-life fantasy league participants build teams of players whose performance in NFL games (yards gained, passes completed) earns stats and touchdowns for the fictional squads. What part of high-scoring megastars’ racking up points for your handpicked fake team doesn’t sound like a fantasy?
The League takes this fantasy pretty far. The members go head-to-head in weekly battles complete with major trash talk, intense fan superstition and all-consuming desire for the championship. But above all, the league lets these laymen feel as if they’re really part of the NFL—from the comfort of their Winnetka, Illinois, living rooms.
Tailgating in the stadium parking lot on game day, when grills and fans get fired up in anticipation of the big contest, is an enduring component of the American football experience. For the fourth season of The League, stars Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer wrote an episode, “The Tailgate,” in which Andre Nowzick (Scheer) plans a trip for the group to a Bears game, including a pregame party. League member Kevin MacArthur (Stephen Rannazzisi) is pumped: “Tailgating is awesome. You get to drink beer early in the morning, you get to play touch football, we get to barbecue.” Rodney Ruxin (Kroll) is less enthusiastic. “I don’t want to go tailgating, and I don’t want to go to a game,” he whines. “I want to watch football in the comfort of my own home.” Things go downhill when the pals’ high school rival Frank “the Body” Gibiatti and his gang show up.
Ruxin may be right. Scoring a parking spot at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where “The Tailgate” is set, is competitive and expensive. Priority goes to season-ticket holders; other fans must arrive at the stadium before seven a.m., and all brave temperatures in the 20s and 30s later in the season.
Tailgating is the ultimate pregame party, and the atmosphere encourages some seriously ritualistic eating. Superfans don their jerseys, paint their faces, set up camp in a stadium parking lot (often under a canopy well beyond their cars’ rear doors) and periodically roar team cheers and anthems. They expect—nay, deserve!—the feast of a champion, along with copious beer to wash it down. When settling on your tailgate menu, heed this advice from Kevin MacArthur, the “commissioner” of fantasy football for much of The League, who knows how to prep for a day spent among his gridiron-loving brethren: “I don’t want nutrients.… I’m gonna go sit on my fat ass inside with 60,000 other animals. I just want to be filled with grease.”
So what are the tailgating superfoods? Chili, easy to make ahead and comforting to clutch on a cold day, is ranked numero uno by foodie and manly publications alike. Grilling likewise provides the perfect combination of meat and heat. Expect burgers. Expect dogs. And while chicken wings are usually fried, tailgaters must adapt, so wings on the grill are not only completely legit, they’re the consummate finger food—and required tailgate eats.
All the game days of potato chips, pretzels and pints that make up the regular NFL season for armchair quarterbacks are just the belt-loosening warm-up to the wave of gastro-indulgence that is Super Bowl Sunday, the pinnacle of the football snack season and the second-biggest eating fest of the year. Believe it or not, Americans take in more food only on Thanksgiving. What is it about watching remarkable displays of fitness and athleticism that inspires us to inflict nutritional punishment on our own bodies as we cheer from the sidelines?
How much food are we talking? Well, on Super Bowl Sunday 2013, football fans choked down an estimated 1.23 billion chicken wings—despite a vaunted, perhaps mythical chicken wing shortage—and 325.5 million gallons of beer. Also in the national snack mix: 28 million pounds of potato chips and 2.5 million pizzas from Domino’s alone. To put those numbers in perspective, that’s enough wings to carpet 1,083,333 football fields, enough beer to fill nearly 500 Olympic-size swimming pools and enough potato chips, laid end-to-end, to circle the globe nearly a dozen times (11.76 times, to be exact). As you may expect, sales of antacids jumped 20 percent the next day.
On any given Sunday (or Monday or Thursday), more than 16 million people on average are watching an NFL game. But on Super Bowl Sunday, the number skyrockets sixfold. Super Bowl XLVIII will likely draw at least 100 million viewers, and the tally will spike when elfin pop star Bruno Mars takes the stage for the halftime show. That many eyeballs don’t come cheap for advertisers. For 2014, Fox has sold 30-second ad slots for upwards of $4 million. That comes out to more than $133,000—per second.
Though there’s some debate over whether all those eyeballs actually result in higher product sales, advertisers don’t seem deterred by the price tag. Rather, they create premier content specifically for the big day. Super Bowl ads have become so popular that, according to some surveys, more people tune in for the ads than for the game. The more viewers these spots have, the more they cost, but when the ads alone attract such a huge viewership, is the point really to sell or just to entertain? And is an ad truly successful if it achieves the latter without the former?
Given the phenomenal consumption of hot wings and brews during football games, it’s no surprise that commercials for Anheuser-Busch beers and the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant chain are just as common in game broadcasts. Bud Light has been an official sponsor of the NFL since 2011, and in 2012 the brand launched a campaign solidifying the link between Bud Light and NFL superfandom. Set to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” the ads depict fans engaging in crazy rituals to help their team get the W. Beer becomes part of the action when an Indianapolis Colts fan arranges his blue Bud Light cans into the team’s horseshoe logo on the top shelf of his fridge.
While Bud Light wants to conjure the victory, Buffalo Wild Wings wants to conjure the fun. One of its campaigns features football fans hanging out together at the eateries, watching the game and having such a great time that no one wants to go home. Happily, the BWW bartenders have direct lines to stadium staff and employ such sneaky tactics as activating the on-field sprinklers to trip and soak players and send games into overtime, thereby keeping the fun going.
Every year the champion teams from the NFL’s conferences, the National and the American, meet head-on in the Super Bowl. All players dream of winning it and earning not just a trip to Disneyland but the league’s coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy. Named for the legendary Green Bay Packers coach whose team won the first two Super Bowls, the seven-pound treasure is forged annually in sterling silver by Tiffany & Co. It is one of the most sought-after prizes in all of sports.
The characters on The League covet their own trophy. Nicknamed the Shiva, for another legendary figure (a recurring female character who went to high school with the guys and whose yearbook photo rests atop the trophy), this ultimate symbol of victory was forged in the finest plastic. Leaguers make good-luck “offerings” to the Shiva—objects, such as a hairbrush and a vibrator, stolen from its namesake’s house—for a successful season and to avoid the stigma of taking home the league’s other trophy, the Sacko. Named for an ignoble part of their high school mascot, el Sacko del Toro (“bull’s scrotum” in the group’s pidgin Spanish) is won by the member whose team has the worst record.