This year’s Super Bowl, with its tsunami of Vegas glitz, hordes of celebrities, eye-searing graphics, overstuffed halftime show, attention-deficit-inducing whiparounds, over-the-top and nonstop analysis, wall-to-wall advertising, and occasional football, drew more American viewers on a single network than any program in the entire history of humanity.
You know what that means, right? Yeah. This is the most restrained and tame the Super Bowl will ever be again.
The Super Bowl long ago ceased being “just” a football game. It’s a spectacle, the last shared popular-culture event America will ever enjoy together. You have to enjoy sports live and in the moment, and the Super Bowl is the culmination and pinnacle of sports in this country. With that many eyeballs in one place, the sponsors, celebrities, hustlers, influencers and grifters come down from the hills, everyone wanting a piece of your sweet, precious attention. That’s why Super Bowl ads cost a reported $7 million for a 30-second spot this year, why they sell out every year, and why that cost is never, ever coming down.
Super Bowl week is now a nonstop barrage of hype and blather, a sonic boom of promotion, speculation and look-at-me attempted virality that has reduced the players themselves to exhibits in a zoo. Multiply that by the natural ambient glitz of a host city like Las Vegas, and you’ve got a weeklong festival that’s now Mardi Gras crossbred with a thousand bachelor/bachelorette parties. The football isn’t the centerpiece, it’s one of a hundred possible stops on the week’s itinerary.
Even if you weren’t in Vegas, you could spend untold hours watching pregame content. Hell, on Super Bowl Sunday itself, pregame shows started up at 9 a.m. ET for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff. That’s not healthy! No sane human should be watching football coverage for more than nine hours before kickoff!
Here’s the thing about hype: It’s addictive, and what did the job this year won’t break through next year.
The only way to crack through the constant barrage of cultural noise is by overwhelming force. Fireworks explosions must be bigger, graphics must be brighter, music must be louder, halftime productions must be larger. It’s an arms race for your attention, and restraint isn’t an option.
One unfortunate element in all of this is that the hype obscures a game that ought to be sublime. In time, this Super Bowl as a football game will get its historical due. One of the few Super Bowls ever decided on a walk-off play, this game stank right on through halftime, but a fervent final quarter and a tense overtime raised its profile considerably … if you’re a football fan, that is. If you were one of the 75 million or so dilettantes watching the game because A) might as well, everyone else is watching it or B) Taylor Swift!!!, you were pretty much ready to pack it in at the end of regulation.
The NFL has split many of its broadcasts into “standard” and “ManningCast” versions, much like college football’s championship games often include “coach speak” and stats-heavy options. Would the Super Bowl ever offer a “football-only” channel? Never say never, but the NFL isn’t going to want to divide its audience; keeping everyone on the same channel ensures the widest possible audience for all those pricey Dunkin’, E*Trade and M&M's ads.
Twenty years from now, when they’re swearing in President Swift and the First Gentleman is pounding beers during the inauguration, we’ll look back on this overstuffed, overhyped, retina-scorching, eardrum-warping Super Bowl. And we’ll think, how quaint and calm it all was.