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The Superbowl As A Cultural Phenomenon – SportsUntapped.com
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Added January 30th, 2010 by David Glisan

The Superbowl As A Cultural Phenomenon
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The Superbowl long ago ceased being just another football game and entered the realm of full blown American pop culture phenomenon.  It is not only a big deal for sports fans, but an important event for marketing, broadcasting, media, advertising, entertainment and retail industries among many others.  Everything surrounding the game–from the pregame to the national anthem to the halftime show–has become an extravaganza.

The first area in which the Superbowl transcended the realm of a mere sporting event was in its impact as a television event.  In many years, its the single most watch television program in American households.  Typically, the game will do a 40 Neilsen rating and a 60 share.  This means that between 80 and 90 million viewers are watching at any given point in the contest, with 120 to 130 million watching at least some part of the game.  The TV rating of the game has taken on something of a life of its own, and many offshore sports books offer Over/Under bets on the final Neilsen rating of the Superbowl.  We’ll talk more about this type of prop bet in the coming week.

The highest rated Superbowl was Superbowl XVI in 1982 which earned a 49.1 Neilsen rating and a 73 share.  This game is #4 on the all time highest rated television program Neilsen ratings, and three other games are in the top ten.  Last year’s game drew the largest total number of viewers with an estimated 98.7 million watching the game.  The larger potential TV audience that currently exists meant that it didn’t enjoy the lofty ratings numbers of the 1982 game.   There are other changes that may keep the 1982 game’s record ratings from ever being broken.  Since then, the number of TV viewing options on satellite and cable as well as the Internet has increased dramatically.  The influence of the major TV networks has also been significantly diminished.

With so many viewers watching the Superbowl every year it has also become a huge event for the advertising industry with major corporations investing heavily in special commercials to air during the game.  Apple’s commercial introducing the Macintosh computer is often credited with starting this trend.  That commercial, directed by Sir Ridley Scott (best known for Alien and Blade Runner) is considered one of the most effective TV spots in broadcasting history.  With a 30 second spot costing $3 million dollars, corporations don’t advertise unless they can make a big splash.

The Superbowl halftime show has become a big deal in recent years, though it had a very inauspicious beginning.  The first few Superbowls featured the standard fare of marching bands.  The first celebrity to entertain at halftime was, oddly enough, Carol Channing in 1970.  For some time, the halftime show was usually an elaborate performance featuring marching bands and unctuous groups like ‘Up With People’.  Occasionally they’d bring in a real celebrity like the iconic Ella Fitzgerald in 1972 (Carol Channing also performed with her making her one of a few multiple time performers).  1993 saw a big Michael Jackson performance, and that really began the trend of featuring A list entertainers that exists to this day.  It also started the current practice of featuring a concert type of performance as opposed to a more traditional ‘halftime show’ with marching bands, dancers, etc.  Since then the Superbowl has presented major acts like U2, Aerosmith, Prince, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.  It also introduced the term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ to the American lexicon thanks to the infamous 2004 antics of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson.

The National Anthem has also become a platform for major entertainers.  The first couple of games featured marching band renditions of the National Anthem, with the first “real” celebrity to perform being Anita Bryant in 1969.  Since then with a few marching bands and choirs here and there, its featured big name talent.  More recently, the featured act has been a mainstream pop star type like Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks or Jennifer Hudson.  They’ve also featured some serious legends over the years, including instrumental versions of the anthem by Wynton Marsalis, Herb Alpert and Al Hirt.

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