After we emerge from the current pandemic, much of life will return to relative normal. The Super Bowl, however, may never be the same.
Super Bowl LV will be very different from its recent predecessors. Calmer. Mellower. More like a football game than a zydeco/klezmer/speed metal music festival overrun by a colony of marmosets that gnawed their way into someone’s methamphetamine/Viagra stash.
The pandemic has cancelled or curtailed much of the hoopla that surrounds this year’s Super Bowl. That’s mostly a good thing. Super Bowl Week is little more than an enormous bonfire that consumes an obscene amount of money, energy, resources and talent while producing little more than unwatchable talk show segments and cookie-cutter columns about Tom Brady’s (wait for it) Legacy.
In fact, while the limitations caused by the pandemic may not end Super Bowl week hoopla forever, it could turn the volume of the histrionics down to a less eardrum-rupturing level in future years.
I’ve had the privilege (and it truly is a privilege) to cover eight Super Bowls in person. Covering a Super Bowl is like being a drone in a highly-agitated beehive. It’s also a little like caring for an infant: mostly tedium, drudgery, stinkiness and anxiety, but it is also satisfying and life-affirming in an almost primal way that makes you forget all the sleepless nights and poop disposal by the time the next one rolls around.
As the 2010s rolled on, however, the Super Bowl hype and ancillary events grew more shrill, cynical and expensive. Super Bowl Week became less and less like an opportunity to provide fans with football-flavored infotainment and more like a sacrificial orgy-riot to an omnipotent football emperor-god. Things were getting so out-of-hand that a reboot was probably coming, though it would have been nice if it didn’t arrive bundled with a global catastrophe.
Here are just a few of the things we will all be missing out on or seeing virtual/downsized versions of next week.
“Media Day” morphed into “Super Bowl Opening Night” the way a company called “Sunshine Natural Fruit Punch Collective” inevitably evolves into “Amalgamated Genocidal Neurotoxins LLC:” so gradually that no one noticed.
In the olden times (first ten Super Bowls or so), a few dozen reporters chatted with players and coaches at a hotel conference room for a few hours, perhaps over cocktails, then turned the quotes and notes into a week’s worth of content. By my first Super Bowl (XLVI, New York Giants vs. England Patriots, Indianapolis), the NFL was already charging fans to enter Lucas Oil Stadium and watch international-press hotties ask Tom Brady Newlywed Game-worthy questions while a few thousand of us print-media Morlocks tripped over each other’s microphone cords for a few moments of Rob Ninkovich’s precious time.
Over the 2010s, “Media Day” moved from early afternoon to 8 PM (perfect for television, useless for deadlines) and the “Media” was dropped because, well, wouldn’t you? By Miami last year, the NFL Network feed at American Airlines Arena was louder than the speakers at the individual press booths, making it impossible to hear (and later transcribe) a soft-spoken player like Sammy Watkins’ response to a question because Deion Sanders was shouting made-for-TV nonsense to Travis Kelce at the same time. The only way the NFL could have made the interviews more useless would be running our tape recorders through a food processor at the end of the night.
Even in its loopy early-2010s incarnation, Media Day/Opening Night was a valuable tool for the beat reporter from the Amityville Picayune to interview the local high school hero who made the Patriots practice squad and for some nontraditional or international outlets to score a few minutes of amusing video. By last year, the media hordes were simply extras in a Cecil B. DeMille epic, pushing boulders around a backlot behind the heroes to make the NFL look extra mighty and powerful.
There will be some sort of virtual Opening Night next week, giving television producers complete control over what is seen, heard and said. It will probably be more entertaining and informative than thousands of reporters shouting repetitive questions to players who have been warned to not give any quotable answers. At the very least, I won’t get elbowed in the face while participating.
Radio Row is not a row. It’s a rabbit warren, a gold-rush town, a hastily-erected favela of tables, cables and folding chairs ringed by the opulent gated-community estates of the broadcast outlets powerful enough to erect mini television studios.
At most Super Bowls, Radio Row takes up a chunk of an exhibition hall in a convention center. But in Minnesota (Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia Eagles over New England Patriots), Radio Row was wedged next to the Shake Shack in the Mall of America food court. By Friday of that week, shoppers and latter-day mallrats ringed the barricaded media encampment four-deep to watch radio producers desperately plead for a few moments with visiting NFL Pro Bowlers and 1980s Hall of Famers like lepers begging for a healing touch from a missionary.
Radio Row was chaotic but productive earlier in the decade. At Super Bowl 50 (San Francisco/Santa Clara, Denver Broncos over Carolina Panthers), even the lowliest radio affiliate from Halifax had a chance to flag down Joe Montana, Miss America or Snoop Dogg; a media D-lister (me) might get shepherded to three or four tightly-scheduled radio appearances per day; and an enterprising beat reporter could shadow a former coach, ask three questions while he paraded the barracks, then those responses into an engaging article.
By Super Bowl LIII (Atlanta, New England Patriots over Los Angeles Rams), major outlets became greedier about access and publicists became much more protective of their clients. Meanwhile, budgets shrunk and hotel prices rose, dissuading smaller stations from sending a four or five-person radio team. Why send Chonk Daddy and Da Coach (and their producer and engineer) to Miami for a week when Christian McCaffery and Warren Moon would spend all their promotional time bouncing between NFL Network, NBC Sports and Sirius Radio?
Radio Row will be a fraction of its former glory when it returns in earnest next year. After all, if some publicist wants Kirk Cousins to make the rounds for a new flavor of salad dressing, they will set him up with Zoom conferences from the comfort of his home. Listeners will lose the randomness and spontaneity of Radio Row: from the “Hall of Famer, then WWE superstar, then reality-show personality” whiplash of the guest list to the occasional fights between rival hosts. (Yes, they happen). But those things were all disappearing anyway, because the NFL is always in a rush to slaughter its golden goose.
Start with a brothel. Remove all the sex workers. Move it to an airport hangar. Make the drinks and refreshments even more expensive. Finally, fill it to overflowing with a mix of overstimulated dudebros and antsy children. Presto! You’ve created the Super Bowl Experience, in which the NFL tosses some Lombardi Trophies, faux team equipment lockers, “interactive exhibits” (your preteen can wait in a 45-minute line to kick an extra point if you are that kind of parent, you monster), whichever local-team Ring of Honor type drew the short straw to man an autograph booth, and lots and lots of paraphernalia vendors into a convention center exhibit hall and charges an exorbitant admission price to fans for whom seeing displays of all 54 Super Bowl rings is a bucket-list item.
Some old friends of mine lived in the neighborhood of Super Bowl LIII (Atlanta, New England Patriots over Los Angeles Rams) and decided, despite my warnings, that they wanted to experience the Super Bowl Experience. They were caught in nearly two hours of traffic and security lines while I guiltily flashed my mighty press pass and waited for them on site. In a city with some of the best food in the nation, we ate convention center hot dogs and pretzels. The whole deal must have cost them about $200 each. Guys, if you are reading this: I am really, really sorry.
Much of what fans read, saw and heard during past Super Bowl Weeks came from the dozens of press conferences scattered across the schedule. Among them:
Halftime Show Press Conference: This is the highlight of the week for much of the non-football media. My colleagues rarely attended this one, because we are increasingly out-of-touch boomers who tapped out of contemporary culture somewhere between Prince and Bruce Springsteen. But I liked to poke my head in to see what kids these days are into.
I honestly have no idea who The Weeknd are, but back in my day we included all the e’s in words the way the dictionary told us to, sonny. (see: BrucE SpringstEEn). But I got to watch Madonna salsa dance (it was a big deal in 2011, thanks to Victor Cruz), heard Beyoncee sing the “Star Spangled Banner” to prove that she did not need to lip sync (that was what national anthem controversies were like in the early 2010s) and watched lifelong Steelers fan Lady Gaga yuk it up with Terry Bradshaw. Coldplay’s press conference before Super Bowl 50 was much better than their halftime performance. But then, if fans of all ages can agree on one thing, it’s that Coldplay sucks.
Television Network Personality Press Conference: The NFL Network, Fox, CBS and/or NBC (depending on who is telecasting the game) make their broadcast teams of ex-players and coaches available for lengthy roundtable interviews during the week. It’s a chance to sit down and ask Kurt Warner about Patrick Mahomes and get an informed, thoughtful answer. More recently, it has been a chance to watch Tony Romo get thronged as if he were Santa Claus handing out PS5’s and Moderna doses.
Some of the television talking heads take their press availability seriously. Others show up 20 minutes late wearing dark sunglasses, slurping iced coffees the size of kiddie pools, and mumbling three-word answers: those all-night Super Bowl parties aren’t going to attend themselves, after all. A few make it clear within moments that they actually watch less football than the average fan and, since they are 20 years removed from the game, know nothing about the salary cap, modern practice routines, the read option or anything else that might be relevant to the upcoming game.
As Opening Night and Radio Row grew more useless, more and more of my colleagues began gravitating toward the television conferences, diminishing their value: the only thing sadder than 100 reporters crowding some linebacker to get his opinion is 50 reporters crowding Boomer Esiason to get his opinion.
Commissioner Goodell’s Press Conference: Each year, Roger Goodell conducts a carefully-orchestrated State of the Union address to tell us how swell everything is in football land. And each year, hundreds of my colleagues take to Twitter to heap scorn on every sentence Goodell utters moments after he mutters them.
Goodell is indeed a suit mannequin committed to a very carefully curated and branded version of the truth. Also — and you may find this shocking — the captains of other industries don’t exactly fill their press conferences with brutal honesty and progressive ideals, either.
Super Bowl parties are not like normal-people parties. Many are “brand activation experiences,” where local tequila distillers, cigar rollers, restaurateurs and makers of other manly stuff (beard oil, hot sauce, scrotal shavers), round up a few NFL legends and put on a shindig to raise awareness of their products. Most are networking opportunities lubricated with ample booze, making them awesome.
Seriously, only an over-entitled twit would complain about attending parties for free as part of his job description. I drank free premium bourbon in Minneapolis, saw the Zac Brown band perform in San Francisco and played Madden while drinking gin-and-tonic at the Museum of the Moving Picture in Queens. I may have actually conducted or set up an interview at one or two of these events. The details are hazy.
Local VIPs (owners of regional car dealerships, financial supporters of city council members, mobsters, side-pieces of all genders) also get to attend these soirees, making them essential see-and-be-seen society functions in most years and likely extinction-level superspreaders if anyone dares to throw any this year.
There’s also a media party, a kind of Boxing Day where the NFL treats us like royalty for one night. News of the Alex Smith Chiefs-Washington trade broke during the Super Bowl LII media party at the Nickelodeon Universe. Heaven knows who actually broke the news, since most of us were already smashed. A few dedicated and/or low-ranking souls grabbed sodas and headed for their hotel rooms to create content while the rest of us turned off our phones so our editors could not find us as we smuggled bourbon onto the Fairly Oddcoaster. Last year in Miami, a freight train derailed on the one access road to the event site, forcing our ride services to drop us off along the railroad tracks a quarter mile away. Several colleagues — educated, distinguished, successful members of the cherished Fourth Estate — began climbing over the couplings between freight cars to get to the booze before a railroad worker arrived to explain just how mangled our corpses would be if the train lurched forward even a few feet. We trudged along the tracks around the back of the train to go drinking instead, like responsible citizens.
The pandemic has taught us many brutal lessons over the last year, as well as a few less tragic and more encouraging ones. We learned that we travel too much for work, even as daily commuters, and get too little out of it. We make things too hard on ourselves by making life more convenient and profitable for the folks in charge than for those of us who do the daily work. The pandemic has taught us that we can work from home efficiently and entertain ourselves without the need for bombastic spectacles. We can enjoy football without needing to know the long-snapper’s favorite pizza topping or Pitbull to hype up the crowd outside the stadium. Heck, even fans in the stands are more of a luxury than a necessity.
Super Bowl Week should return to something close to normal normal after the 2021 season. And damnit, I hope I am once again butts-to-nuts with 200 colleagues at Opening Night, shimmying between tables at Radio Row to speak with KZZZ-The Team from Keokuk or begging Michael Irvin to offer me his opinions on Dak Prescott’s contract situation (which will still be a thing) next year. But perhaps the pandemic will teach the NFL to make it’s events more user-friendly and intimate, not just to make my job easier, but so readers/viewers/listeners/fans actually get to hear their favorite players/coaches/personalities and experience the host city in a way that’s more fun and festive than desperate and grasping.
Oh wait, next year’s Super Bowl is in Los Angeles. Forget everything I just wrote. There will be enough hype before Super Bowl LVI to make you feel like you were mugged while staring directly at a solar eclipse in the HOV lane of a freeway at rush hour. And chances are, we’ll feel happy that it’s back.