Here's a good bet for tomorrow's Super Bowl: look for a blowout.
We're not talking about the game. The matchup between the surprising St. Louis Rams and the even more surprising Tennessee Titans could be a minor gridiron classic, pitting the Rams' lightning offense against the Titans' tidal-wave defense. The football part of the show actually could be pretty interesting.
It's the extravaganza itself that seems to be wobbling like a lineman with a torn ACL. After XXXIII previous go-rounds, Super Bowl XXXIV could earn the distinction as the least-watched game in the gaudy history of the spectacle. If so, it would continue a general downward arc: The Super Bowl as national bacchanal and TV ritual has been slipping for years.
All the elements are in place for a super downer:
* Unlike the storied franchises of yore--Washington, Dallas, Green Bay, San Francisco, etc.--neither of the teams in Sunday's game has a national following. In fact, St. Louis and Tennessee are just starting to gain regional followings. You could call this the Carpetbagger Bowl, considering that the St. Louis Rams were the L.A. Rams until five years ago, and the Tennessee Titans were known as the Houston Oilers until 1997.
* The teams hail from two of the smallest metropolitan regions ever to be represented in a Super Bowl; St. Louis is the nation's 21st-largest population center and Nashville is the 30th largest. Not since Kansas City played Green Bay in the first Super Bowl (then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship) have two smaller-market teams taken the field. This hasn't been lost on the networks; neither team has gotten much national TV exposure this season (the Rams, in fact, weren't even on national TV until the playoffs). Which leads to . . .
* The lack of star power. Ram quarterback Kurt Warner is the NFL's MVP but was largely unknown a year ago. His opposite number on the Titans, Steve McNair, is an exciting runner but is even less established than Warner in the NFL pantheon. Since neither team has gotten much national exposure this year, it's doubtful that casual fans--the kind that swell Super Bowl ratings--can name more than two players on either side.
ABC, which is televising the game, actually thinks all these things will help, not hurt, its telecast. "Because the teams are unfamiliar, there may be more interest to learn who they are," says Mark Mandel, a network spokesman.
Besides, he says, it doesn't really matter who's playing. "The Super Bowl is a national holiday in this country. A lot of people have been planning to watch for months. It may not be the Broncos or Packers, but this is the Super Bowl."
Sure, we care about the Super Bowl, but the evidence suggests we care much less than before.
ABC, for example, is projecting that the game will attract a rating of 40--meaning 40 percent of all households in America will tune in. That's still a huge number in the ever-fragmenting television universe (a typical Monday night game on ABC draws about one-third that audience), but it's pathetic in Super Bowl terms.
A 40 rating would be even lower than last year's game between the Broncos and Falcons (remember?), which attracted the second-smallest audience in three decades. Indeed, Super Bowl viewing peaked in the early- to mid-1980s, and has followed a jagged slope downward ever since. The all-time high was in 1982, when ratings for the 49ers-Bengals game came in at 49.
Where have you gone, Super Bowl?
Perhaps, suggests Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University, we are simply spectacled out.
"The Super Bowl was created to be a spectacle unlike any other, and it was," he says. "The problem today is that everyone has caught on to turning events into spectacles. The Olympics, the NBA finals, March Madness [the NCAA basketball tournament]. Everyone has figured out how to play up the elements of human drama. When everything is high drama, nothing is high drama."
The proliferation of cable channels and the Internet has given viewers plenty of good alternatives to the Super Bowl, says Rob Whittle, who runs the Williams, Whittle ad agency in Alexandria.
But it's more than that, he adds: The Super Bowl has done a pretty good job of killing the Super Bowl.
"All the hype is ridiculous," he says. "My God, stop it already. Nothing can live up to that kind of hype. It can't be done."
Few Super Bowl games have been exciting enough to warrant the name, Whittle says. And too much "clutter"--the ad industry term for an excessive number of commercials--can even kill the enjoyment of the game-within-a-game among sponsors. Says Whittle, "We're turning everything into the Microsoft-FedEx-Coca Cola bowl."
And there's nothing super about that.