If you ask Americans, they will say it is the biggest sporting night of the year. They will go on to tell you it is a “global” event. But if you ask most of the other people on the globe about Super Bowl – the finale to the American football season – they might struggle to know what you are talking about.
But such is US confidence in its own place in the world order – some might call it arrogance – that anything that happens in its country is obviously “a global event”. In truth gridiron football is the sport which, more than any other, demonstrates that American sports – with the exception of basketball – do not travel well.
While last year’s Super Bowl attracted a domestic television audience of about 48 million homes – outside the US its appeal is slight and probably dominated by expatriates. In the UK according to the TV Sports Markets newsletter just 77,000 viewers watched last year’s final live on Sky Sport One.
The situation is unlikely to change this Sunday with Super Bowl XXXV between the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens being played in Tampa Florida. The Giants were all but out of the competition in November but had a fantastic run at the end of the normal season and last week beat the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the most one-sided National Conference Final – effectively the Super Bowl semi-final – in living memory. The Ravens beat favourites Oakland in the American Conference Final by a narrower margin and have now been installed as favourites. In short, nobody is expecting a vintage game Sunday night.
No matter. The game is often secondary to the business going on around Super Bowl. By next Monday morning we will know – if we wish to – how many beers were drunk, how many hot dogs eaten and how much popcorn was spilt during Super Bowl XXXV. We will also know who paid CBS the most money for the advertising slots – the most expensive in the world. Volkswagen has already struck a $10m (&£6.8m) exclusivity deal with CBS giving the German car maker four 30-second slots during the game and forcing rival motor manufacturers out of the picture. That is $2.5m (&£1.7m) per 30 seconds of air-time.
It might take longer to calculate the economic impact of the game for Florida, but last year’s Super Bowl is claimed to have brought in $292m (&£199m) extra to the state of Georgia. It is unclear how so much money is generated by one three-hour game, but the figures, as with everything American, are larger than life.
As if all that were not enough, the whole sport is about to be exaggerated by the arrival of a new American football league – a semi-serious rival for the National Football league (NFL) – called XFL.
The brainchild of the man behind the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Vince McMahon, and the NBC TV network, XFL is positioning itself as an international alternative to NFL. In other words, it is hoping to finally make the sport “global”.
Eight teams glorying in names such as the Chicago Enforcers, LA Xtreme the Memphis Maniax and Orlando Rage will meet in a league that will combine gridiron with a hint of wrestling and plenty of pantomime theatrics. The season will run for 12 weeks with play-offs and a final – the same format as the NFL. But the organisers are promising a real blood and thunder competition and claim – in true hyped pantomime style – that the NFL has gone soft.
McMahon recently said: “The NFL would have everyone believe that players are nice to each other and everything is gentlemanly but what footballers really want to do is take each other’s heads off. We’re going to go out there and promote that, not hide behind it.”
The whole thing would be ridiculous – it has more to do with show business than sport – were it not for the runaway success McMahon has made of the WWF. It is the most successful pay-per-view sport (albeit with faked fights) in the world and when the company moved from Nasdaq to a full New York Stock Exchange listing last November it was valued at more than $1.2bn (&£818m).
Some analysts have subsequently marked its stock down, suggesting that it is over-stretching itself with XFL. But McMahon, who with his family owns 83 per cent of WWF, is unmoved. “A lot of people with a vested interest in the NFL want to disparage us, but we haven’t even played our first game,” he said recently. “When people see how successful its going to be I think the shares will skyrocket.”
NBC has spent an estimated $30m (&£20.4m) to take a three per cent stake in WWF which also gives it the rights to broadcast and part-own XFL. The league’s backers see a future for their brand of American football as an international TV product – something the NFL has pursued but failed to secure successfully. They deny that they have used WWF wrestling as a way of leveraging influence with overseas broadcast partners to take XFL, but it seems an obvious way to develop the league and to avoid the trap that other “wannabe” NFL rivals have fallen into – running out of money. Even if they do not use WWF as a blunt instrument to woo broadcasters, the experience garnered from selling wrestling around the world should make XFL an interesting prospect.
So, by the time Super Bowl XXXVI is played in New Orleans next year there could be at least one wing of the sport which might genuinely claim to be “global”
Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times