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COLUMN: Super Bowl Not Too Big To Fail

Jeremy Bergman |
February 18, 2013 | 12:57 p.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor

 A chance occurence or a sign of things to come? (Creative Commons)
A chance occurence or a sign of things to come? (Creative Commons)

It's not a stretch by any imagination to call Super Bowl Sunday the most celebrated unofficial American holiday of the year. Some may even call the first Sunday of February a religious celebration; Pope Goodell and his (Arizona) cardinals make it impossible for anyone to ignore the Church of Pigskin. An observance of everything spectacular and excessive about capitalism, America, and its sport-as-entertainment culture, Super Bowl Sunday now consistently draws over 100 million viewers on television, via which corporate sponsors fight tooth, nail, and wallet to get their brand in the broadcast, and makes everyone involved richer, and therefore, in the end, happier. 

The influence that the commercial sponsors, the National Football League and, above all, commissioner Roger Goodell have over this sport-obsessed nation of ours during one four-hour period is unfathomably immense, so much so that even the grand nihilist Kanye West himself may question whether he has to step up his "Power" game. 

But what happens when America's Game, quite literally, loses its power?

Super Bowl XLVII may forever be remembered by sports fans as Ray Lewis's last ride, and goal-line stand, as Joe Flacco's emergence as an elite quarterback, or as the first of, what I expect to be, many Super meetings between the Brothers Harbaugh. But for everyone else at their respective Super Bowl parties, Sunday's event will be known as the Blackout Bowl. 

When half of the lights went out in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome barely two minutes into the third quarter, the mythology and infallibility of the Super Bowl disappeared along with the fans' sight lines. 

Roger Goodell runs the NFL with near omnipotence. (Wikimedia Commons)
Roger Goodell runs the NFL with near omnipotence. (Wikimedia Commons)
For 34 minutes, the Greatest Show on American Television was turned into an investigative mystery led by unfamiliar faces Steve Tasker and Solomon Wilcotts, who deserve credit for salvaging a near-ruined broadcast. For more than half an hour, many viewers, and the fans in New Orleans, were left in the dark (get it?), unable to comprehend how such a massive and important event could be halted mid-action by what appeared to be a blown socket.

Some paranoid Americans, like Colin Cowherd, believed the light blowout was an act of Al-Qaeda terrorism. Others joked that the Heinz Field-destroying Batman villain Bane or intimidating WWE wrestler The Undertaker was taking over the Super Bowl. I wishfully believed that all the fault can placed on some sadistic, but rightfully vengeful Saints fan working at Entergy, who thought it'd be good fun to rain on Goodell's parade as retribution for his single-handedly sinking of New Orleans' 2012 season.

In the days soon after, it was confirmed that the blackout was the result of a "device installed specifically to prevent a blackout." Now I'm not a technician or an electrician or, at the very least, a mathematician, but shouldn't machines meant to prevent blackouts be able to prevent blackouts instead of, let's say, accelerate a blackout? Seems like common sense, but apparently the overwhelming spectacle of the Super Bowl can trump even scientific reason. 

In a less technical sense, this 30-minute crisis speaks volumes about the perils that the NFL will face in the near future as a result of its humungous stature and consuming power.

As Samson realized when his luscious locks were snipped off by Delilah, the NFL understood quickly how disastrous and debilitating it would be to have their crown jewel ruined, rendering the league powerless and embarrassed on an international scale. 

That's what the blackout did to the National Football League; it shined a light, or lack there of, on how fragile the omnipotent status of the Shield. As the proverb goes, "The bigger they come, the harder they fall."

Don't look now, Roger, but they won't come much bigger than next year's Super Bowl, which is being held just outside New York City, the largest city in the country, arguably the world center of culture, and most importantly, the media and business capitals of the world. (In reality, Super Bowl XLVIII is being played in the comfortable and homely marshes of this writer's glorious home state of New Jersey at MetLife Stadium.)

For the first time in Super Bowl history, the Big Game will be played outdoors in a cold-weather city, risking the health of the players, the comfort of the sponsors, and the extremities of the fans. While at first, I didn't see this is a big, divisive issue - the Giants made it to Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix by playing in near sub-zero temperatures in Green Bay; but with recent developments in mind, like the blackout and the huge blizzard - 40 inches in Connecticut?! - there is room for worry that next year's Super Bowl may flop.

This year, 108.4 million people watched Super Bowl XLVII pitting the San Francisco 49ers against the Baltimore Ravens, teams from two middle-tier media markets. While that number is massive in its own right and in comparison to Super Bowls only ten years ago (Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 garnered only 88.6 million viewers), this was the first year in a while that the TV viewership declined from the last year's total. In 2012, the New York Giants and New England Patriots, representing two of the top media markets in the nation, played in Super Bowl XLVI to 111.3 million viewers. Some outlets offer that the blackout that resulted in a 30-minute lapse in gameplay was the reason for the decline, a sign that doesn't bode well for next year.

Super Bowl XLVIII in New York will undoubtably break the record for most viewed program of all time, simply because the game is being played in the Big Apple area, but even more so for the same reason non-Southerners watch NASCAR: to watch a dramatic crash and burn. 

Or freeze. The NFL is already scrambling for alternative options and scenarios in case Super Bowl Sunday is threatened by unexpected weather developments. There were even rumors of nixing the halftime show, which would disappoint and drive away a noticeable percentage of viewers. (Here's to hoping Jay-Z can perform in a parka.) 

The weather at MetLife Stadium is beautiful in the summer, but unpredictable in the winter. (Jeremy Bergman)
The weather at MetLife Stadium is beautiful in the summer, but unpredictable in the winter. (Jeremy Bergman)
This sudden fright is coming on the heels of the dominant blizzard, Nemo, that ravaged the East Coast only one week after the Super Bowl, thus sending the league into frenzied and fear-driven research into how to navigate around, not through, a potential storm.

And it's not just piles of snow that the Host Committee should be worried about. From personal experience, I have been witness to four disruptions at the new MetLife Stadium that resulted in unnerving time delays; three of them were storm related. The first came during the first regular season Jets game at the New Meadowlands Stadium in 2010; the PA announcer urged every patron not to go to their seats during a one-hour delay for an approaching thunderstorm that hit, but didn't at all devastate. Similar announcements were made at another Jets game later that season against the Vikings on Monday Night Football, a huge stage, and during this past football season when the USC Trojans flew east to play the Syracuse Orange, delaying the beginning of the second half nearly an hour and halting the Trojans's momentum mightily.  

Clearly MetLife Stadium's standards for halting gameplay and emptying the 83,000 fans into wide, but not-wide-enough-for-83,000-fans concourses are low, as the stadium officials gave done so at least three times in the stadium's first three years. Though these measures are for safety reasons and no one can really ever debate against safety, they are preemptive and avoidable by choice. But what would happen if there was some disturbance at MetLife that wasn't planned? Say a blackout, perhaps?

During a Giants-Cowboys game in 2010 that I attended, MetLife Stadium, like the Superdome a few Sundays ago, went completely dark, albeit for a few seconds. However, it took twelve minutes for the game to restart, and when it did, the Giants had found some new momentum and rattled off a quick fourteen points to get back in a game that had been a Dallas blowout in waiting. 

What says it all can't happen again?

Though so much can go right in next year's Super Bowl - a great celebration of the nation's greatest city, two big market teams, and a cool 40 degrees at kickoff - there is more room for error than ever before. With threats of weather and the aforementioned inability to keep the lights on and the game rolling, Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford is one surge protector or snowflake away from inciting chaos in the NFL offices.

But no pressure, Roger. It's not like the world is watching. It's not like your game will break records for most viewers for an American television program, by a boatload. It's not like your brand took a huge hit this year sans power, and may be literally on thin ice in New Jersey next year. 

The Super Bowl has become so big and so taken-for-granted that it is deemed infallible and untouchable across the country and around the world. And as proud as Goodell and his loyal executives must be that they have created, out of a molehill, the Mount Everest of single-day sporting events, they must heed their aggressive steps. 

They may have just become too big for their own good.


Reach Associate Sports Editor Jeremy Bergman via e-mail and on Twitter @JABergman



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