Football is the most popular sport in the world. In the US, however, a different kind of football captivates a wider swath of society, cutting across socioeconomic and racial cleavages like no other. The sport is so uniquely American that the world refers to it as American football (Americans call the football played worldwide soccer).
The sport’s final championship game, the Super Bowl, is an American spectacle like no other. It combines the drama of sports, the universal appeal of music, the power of advertising and a healthy dose of patriotism. It provides a window into American culture that very few events can.
The National Football League’s season finale was played in Houston last Sunday. For close to four hours, millions of Americans watched, cheered and perhaps even shed a tear as the event featured one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the sport, and certainly the Super Bowl, as the New England Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons.
Although the Patriots were favored, having won four such contests since 2001, their come-from-behind victory — under the leadership of a quarterback in his late 30s, in a sport dominated by men in their early 20s — was truly dramatic. To put it in perspective, their comeback in overtime is the equivalent of a soccer team trailing by two or possibly three goals with only 30 minutes left.
While Americans routinely root for the underdog, in sports and perhaps life in general, there is little that inspires them more than stories anchored in perseverance and defying the odds. Americans also love a hero. The Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, although not beloved by all, is now considered the greatest player to have ever played that position, having won five Super Bowls.
In the span of a little over an hour, he went from sitting dejected on the sidelines with his head bowed to hoisting the Vince Lombardy trophy, named after the iconic former coach of the Green Bay Packers.
The ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat are only two elements that make the Super Bowl compelling. The event is often replete with displays of patriotism. At times, it seems like a four-hour homage to the country that made the sport famous and in which it is played almost exclusively. Aerial shows featuring US fighter jets are routinely featured, and the game always starts with the singing of the national anthem.
It combines the drama of sports, the universal appeal of music, the power of advertising and a healthy dose of patriotism.
The game also highlights Americans’ fascination with celebrities. TV cameras scour the more expensive clubs seats in the stadium, which cost thousands of dollars. It is also not unusual for senior government officials to attend. This year Vice President Mike Pence did so.
The event has proven economically lucrative for the many American companies sponsoring it, TV networks broadcasting it and entertainers performing in it. It is often the most-watched TV event in any given year. Advertisers are well aware of this, and many companies have spent as much as $5 million for a minute-long commercial spot. Although an exorbitant amount in the eyes of many, companies appreciate the enormous audience.
By some estimates, 45 percent of Americans watch the Super Bowl every year. For many companies, that captive audience is well worth the substantial investment. A willingness to risk it all for a potential game-changing payoff is a pervasive theme in many American business success stories.
The Super Bowl is such a big TV event in America that even the advertisements aired during it become the subject of discussion and are eagerly awaited by viewers. While many companies adopt a light and humorous approach, others have used this opportunity to redefine their brand.
Some try to convey a message of social responsibility. This year’s commercials featured several that delved into serious social issues including gender equality, ethnic and religious diversity and even immigration.
Corporations sponsor everything related to the Super Bowl, not just TV spots but the entire game and halftime entertainment. Singing the national anthem or performing during the halftime show are coveted by musical artists, and can often elevate a singer into superstar status overnight. Last Sunday’s performer, the enigmatic Lady Gaga, saw her music sales increase by an estimated 1,000 percent almost immediately after the performance.
While there is room for heroic performances by individual players — and many would put Brady’s performance in that category — football is a team sport at its core, with each team comprising 54 players, perhaps more than any other sport in the world. The importance of being a team player is a value that Americans learn at an early age in school, and which many companies consider an asset.
Even coaches have become celebrities. At the same time, sports casters and average fans often spend hours critiquing plays chosen by the coaches. The tendency is so prevalent that it has become part of American parlance: The Monday Morning Quarterback.
The Super Bowl is almost always an entertaining sporting event. At its core, it is pure Americana. Watching it provides a good glimpse into some of the values that Americans hold dear, and what makes the US what it is today.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.