x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The world descends on Florida

A record audience is expected to tune in to see the Colts and the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV and it is hard to imagine this is what NFL owners envisioned 44 years ago.

The Saints fans will be out in force in the early hours of Monday morning when their side take on the Indianapolis Colts in South Florida.
The Saints fans will be out in force in the early hours of Monday morning when their side take on the Indianapolis Colts in South Florida.

There was a woman dressed as a bumblebee asking questions, a comedian drenched in sweat answering questions, a child in a suit interviewing players, and players singing their favourite tunes on the "Super Bowl Idol" set. It is hard to imagine this is what NFL owners envisioned 44 years ago when they first dreamed up this Super Bowl idea. It is more than just a game and arguably the biggest event on the planet. The hype lasts two weeks. Everything can be viewed live on TV or over the internet. Celebrities descend en masse. Players arrive with video cameras to film the media filming them. Millions of people tune in from all over the globe. And that is before the game even starts.

The game itself has become an icon. More than 100 million Americans are expected to watch the game on TV this year - a new ratings record. As it is, the estimated worldwide audience has gone well over that mark in recent years. There were more than 4,500 members of the media covering it last year - and that was far fewer than usual. The numbers are mind-boggling. The spectacle is amazing. It is impossible for even the people involved to describe how big this event has become. And for the players that have never been there before - like many of the New Orleans Saints, who will play the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV tomorrow - the size of the event and intensity of the coverage can be absolutely overwhelming.

"We're handling it well," said Jonathan Vilma, the Saints linebacker shortly after arriving in South Florida. "We have guys like myself with cameras. We're enjoying taking pictures. But at the end of the day it's football. We understand it's football with a little more media hype and a little more around the game." A little more hype? The NFL Network has been broadcasting live, almost completely around the clock, from every press conference and event this week in Miami. On NFL.com, fans can watch all the press conferences, and click on a button to move from podium to podium and choose which player they want to see.

The world seemingly is descending on South Florida - and not everyone is coming for the game. NFL players flock to the Super Bowl host city every year, but mostly for promotional appearances and some legendary parties. Every big-time agent hosts an A-list party, as do the likes of ESPN as well as Maxim and Playboy magazines. Last year, due to the troubles in the US economy, the scope and number of parties were way down. But the NFL is expecting this to be a huge bounce-back year.

And for some of those watching at home the game can be an afterthought, too. Super Bowl commercials have been a major part of the event since 1984, when Apple ran a commercial during the game that had many people buzzing about it afterwards. Since then, things like the "Bud Bowl" - a Budweiser campaign from the Nineties - have become synonymous with the Super Bowl. Newspapers assign writers to review the commercial and gauge viewer reaction, to see which company got the most for their money.

And those companies did spend a lot of money, despite what many economists believe is the worst economic recession the US has seen in many years. The cost of a 30-second spot on CBS for this year's game was between US$2.5million (Dh9.17m) and $2.8m, and the network sold out all 62 of its commercial spots. They did it even though some of the usual Super Bowl advertising heavy hitters - like Pepsi Co. and General Motors - decided not to buy advertising time this year.

When the Super Bowl was born, the NFL did not envisage it as anything more than a championship game. They hoped it would be big, but there is no evidence that anyone believed it would ever turn into something akin to a national holiday. It debuted on January 15, 1967 when it was simply known as the AFL-NFL World Championship game. A few months earlier, during the merger talks between the American and National Football leagues, they agreed that the champions of each league would play for the ultimate championship each season. It would be three years before the Super Bowl name was used, and even then they did not know how super it would become.

Forty-three years ago, the players on the winning team (the Green Bay Packers) each earned $15,000, while the losers (the Kansas City Chiefs) got $7,500 each. This year the winner's shares are $48,000, while the losers get $29,000 each. Tickets for Super Bowl I ranged from $6 to $12. The face value of tickets to Super Bowl XLIV are $800 and $1,000, though fans routinely pay three-times face value and more.

And not only that, they spend plenty of money in the Super Bowl host city every year above and beyond the extravagant cost of tickets. According to one economic impact study, the last time the Super Bowl was in South Florida, the average visitor during Super Bowl week spent $668 per day. And since the average visitor spent five days in the area, they'd spend $3,340 before they even got into the game.

No wonder cities are lining up to host Super Bowls - including London, which hopes to become the first European city to host the event (though the NFL say they are not actively considering that possibility at the moment). In 2007, when the game was last played in Miami, the estimated economic boost was $463 million. For one game. "It's just crazy," said Dallas Clark, the Colts tight end. "All this. All these people here just for us and the Saints. That's part of what makes this such a special week."

It is because of all that money that cities are lining up to play host to what might just be the world's biggest game. So far the NFL has promised Super Bowl XLV to Dallas in 2011, Super Bowl XLVI to Indianapolis in 2012, and Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 to New Orleans. The cities of Tampa, Phoenix, Houston and Atlanta are all interested in Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. San Diego wants to be back in the Super Bowl loop, too, providing they can get either a new stadium or funding to renovate their old one.

And there are several other intriguing possibilities. Los Angeles does not have a team, but plans are in the pipeline to build a stadium which could be ready in time to host that Super Bowl, though the 50th Super Bowl in 2016 seems much more likely. And, recently, New York got the NFL to agree to drop its long-standing requirement that a city without a domed stadium have an historical average temperature above 50C during Super Bowl week, a decision that opened the door for The Big Apple to bid on what would be the first outdoor, cold-weather, Super Bowl game.

"Why not play it here?" said John Mara, the New York Giants owner who will be opening a new, dome-less, $1.6billion stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, that his team will share with the New York Jets from 2010. "As a league, we play some great football in cold weather. I do believe we have some momentum. A number of owners have expressed their support." That is no easy trick considering how much grumbling there is from NFL players, executives and members of the media whenever the Super Bowl is held in a cold-weather city, like in 2006 when the game was played in Detroit.

Many of the NFL's sponsors use Super Bowl week as a convention of sorts, or as a reward for employees and clients. Partying on South Beach, in Miami, is preferable to partying on South Street Seaport, in New York, when the temperature is in the teens. And what of the possibility that the NFL will eventually send its biggest game and stage overseas? Publicly the NFL say they are not currently considering the possibility, but flirtation with foreign markets - particularly London - is undeniable. Next season, for the fourth straight year, the NFL will play a regular season game in London. The league is reportedly considering playing two games per year there in the future. Other European cities may eventually get in the loop.

Can a Super Bowl in the United Kingdom be far behind? Recently, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, said: "We have a lot of interest from international markets" but he also said the NFL "has never looked at London" as a possible site. Could that change in the future? Who knows. It may be hard to fathom the idea of an internationally played Super Bowl now, but there is not a lot about the current circus than the inventors would have fathomed 43 years ago.

At the heart of it all, of course, is a game played between the two best teams in American football. This year's game will feature arguably the two best teams in the NFL - the 16-2 Indianapolis Colts and the 15-3 New Orleans Saints - with no shortage of interesting storylines. Peyton Manning, the Colts' quarterback, will be playing for his second Super Bowl ring against the franchise that his father, Archie, played for and the team he rooted for as a kid.

The Saints will be playing for the heart of their battered city, which was ruined when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The rebirth of the Saints, for so long one of the laughing stock franchises of the league, has become a source of strength to its rebuilding city. The love affair is so deep that there will be a parade in the French Quarter on Tuesday for the Saints, whether they win or lose. That should be enough to keep everyone's attention, but of course there will be more.

The NFL Network will have more than 50 hours of live coverage leading up to the game, including an incredible eight-and-a-half-hour pre-game show. Then Carrie Underwood will sing the National Anthem, and The Who will reunite for a blockbuster half-time show. To the players, though, the spectacle is still just a sideshow to the main storyline: their quest to win the championship and hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, carefully crafted at Tiffany's in New York. The hype, the hoopla, the parties, the fun - all of that can wait.

"This is a business trip, not a vacation," said Reggie Wayne, the Colts receiver. "We've got to understand that. You'll be an even bigger rock star if you win this game. @Email:sports@thenational.ae