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Media overstates global appeal of the Super Bowl

This is an excerpt from Sport in America, Volume II by David Wiggins.

The Globalization of the Super Bowl

With the overwhelming dominance of U.S. entertainment content—especially films, television, and music—around the globe, it is no surprise that the National Football League has worked to build a worldwide audience for American football and its premier television event. From the NFL's perspective, it is expanding the market for its product. Don Garber, then senior Vice President of NFL International, explained in 1999: ‘We invest in a long-term plan to help the sport grow around the world. The vision is to be a leading global sport. We need to create awareness and encourage involvement.'

But the desire for global dominance of American football extends beyond just the NFL's profit-oriented interests. As an American cultural ritual, it is increasingly relevant (and increasingly common) that the Super Bowl is represented as the greatest and most watched sporting event on the planet. The enormous, estimated Super Bowl audience of between 800 million and a billion represents at least two competing ideals. On one hand, the Super Bowl's portrayal in mainstream U.S. news media as the leading international sporting event seems to combat post-cold war fragmentation by emphasizing increasing global unity, via a world-wide, shared Super Bowl experience. On the other, it is significant that this international unity is a unity not focused around World Cup soccer (which is football to the majority of the planet), but around American football, a U.S.-controlled export. Herein lies the great solipsism of the Super Bowl. To a large extent, Americans (and their mass media) cannot imagine—or do not wish to—the Super Bowl as being anything less than the biggest, ‘baddest', and best sporting event in the world.

To imagine the Super Bowl as being this top sporting event is to ignore the counter-evidence of several other major sporting events:

  • The estimated audience for the soccer World Cup (held every four years) is more than two billion viewers world-wide for the single-day championship match. In 1998 an estimated cumulative audience of 37 billion people watched some of the 64 games over the month-long event.
  • The Cricket World Cup, held every four years (most recently in England in 1999) and involving mostly the countries of the former British Empire, has an estimated two billion viewers world-wide, but receives scant attention in the United States.
  • Even the Rugby World Cup, also held every four years (most recently in Wales in 1999), claimed 2.5 billion viewers for its 1995 broadcast from South Africa.
  • Canada, perhaps the country outside the U.S. most likely to adopt the Super Bowl as its own favorite sporting event—given Canada's geographic proximity, limited language barriers, and familiarity with the NFL, favors its own sports championship. The Grey Cup, the title game of the Canadian Football League, regularly draws three million viewers, more than the annual broadcasts of the Super Bowl and hockey's Stanley Cup final. Only the Academy Awards generate a larger Canadian television audience each year.

For more empirical evidence of the relative global insignificance of American football in general and of the Super Bowl in particular we turn to another manifestation of the post-modern spirit that has transformed the Super Bowl into a carnival of consumption: the CNN World Report (CNNWR). According to corporate legend, CNNWR is Ted Turner's maverick attempt to correct the distortions of American television news coverage of the global scene. Launched on 25 October 1987, CNNWR was designed to provide an alternative vision of global journalism, a vision that transcends the nationalistic framing that contaminates conventional international reporting by the U.S. broadcasting networks. As the program's founding executive producer, Stuart Looring, describes it, Turner's ‘Big Idea' for CNNWR was deceptively simple: ‘Our basic role is to be a huge bulletin board in space on which the world's news organizations can tack up their notices, unedited and uncensored.' But while CNN does not edit nor censor the content of the stories submitted to CNNWR, a few ground rules still apply:

  • The report must be in English;
  • The report can be no longer than 2 1/2 min;
  • It must be understandable.

According to Ralph M. Wenge, current executive producer of CNNWR, ‘the only time we ever work with any of those reports is if somebody has such a strong accent that we can't understand it; then we retrack it in Atlanta.' Furthermore, in providing this unique ‘horizontal news channel', CNN still reserves the right to ‘arrange the individual contributor segment packages into the most appealing sequences for maximum viewer interest.'

Our own sampling of World Report programs suggests that the CNNWR has remained just as ungovernable and diversified and refreshingly deviant as when it was launched. A collection of conventional hard news stories, thinly-veiled propaganda, unpaid advertising for tourist industries, funny animal videos, environmental activism, and insightful cultural features, the metaphor that seem most able to capture the meaning and significance of CNNWR is not a carnival, but a circus. With wild animals, clowns, ring masters, and death defying heroics, the CNNWR is an example of post-modern culture in which all truth is a matter of point-of-view—and the distinctions between high and low, strong and weak, professional and amateur, information and entertainment, First World and Third World, friend and foe, no longer matter.

Using the several key-word searches of the CNNWR Archive, we determined that, if coverage in this post-modern, transnational, news venue is any indication, the Super Bowl is a relatively minor blip on the global sports scene. Here are the results:

  • The key words ‘Super' and ‘Bowl' produced only one result. Airing on 22 January 1989, the story was prepared by CNN's own staff and reported on riots that broke out in predominantly black sections of Miami as the city hosted the Super Bowl.
  • The key word ‘football' produced 37 results. However, only eight of those stories made any reference to American football. The others were about soccer.

Of the eight American football stories:

  • Three were from CNN (the Miami riot story, a story on Thanksgiving football games, and a story on the O.J. Simpson murder scandal).
  • Two were from Canada (one about financing stadium construction and one on O.J. Simpson).
  • One was from France (about entertaining U.S. servicemen during Operation DESERT SHIELD).
  • One was from the Netherlands and one from Finland (both about attempts to introduce American football to the two countries).

By way of comparison, consider the preceding results in relation to key-word searches linked to other sports and sporting events:

  • The key words ‘World' and ‘Cup' and ‘soccer' produced 18 results from 12 different countries.
  • ‘Hockey' produced 15 results (but ‘Stanley' and ‘Cup' produced zero results).
  • ‘Baseball' produced 30 results (and six were related to the World Series).
  • ‘Tennis' produced 16 results.
  • ‘Basketball' produced 18 results.
  • ‘Olympic' produced 164 results from 56 countries.

Clearly, American football occupies a marginal position in the world of sports reported by CNNWR—a position that puts it in roughly the same place on the hierarchy of world sports as cricket (which produced 11 results in the key-word search of the CNNWR Archive).

Imagining That the U.S. is the Center of Attention

Although the Super Bowl holds second-level status among world sporting events, the National Football League and other organizations have actively promoted American football to an international audience at least since the early 1980s. In England in 1982 the then-new Channel 4 joined with the NFL and the U.S. brewing giant Anheuser-Busch to show a weekly edited highlight program of American football. This program (edited versions of a featured game's highlights with flashy graphics and rock and roll music) offered novel programming for Channel 4 and strategic marketing opportunities to develop a British taste for American football and Budweiser beer. (Anheuser-Busch later even established the Budweiser League that organized a competition of local, American-style, football clubs.) Although the size of the television audience for American football in the United Kingdom grew between 1982 and 1990, its popularity peaked in the mid 1980s and leveled off to a little over two millions for the average game audience by 1990, leading the British sport researcher Joe Maguire to conclude that, ‘while American football may be an emergent sport in English society, it certainly has not achieved dominance.'

The first instance of an international audience for the Super Bowl mentioned in the NFL Record and Fact Book on-line is for the year 1985. That Super Bowl, notable for President Reagan doing the game's coin toss shortly after he took his second term oath of office, attracted nearly 116 million viewers in the U.S. The Record and Fact Book also notes that, in addition, ‘six million people watched the Super Bowl in the United Kingdom and a similar number in Italy.' In that same year the NFL adopted a resolution to begin its series of preseason, international, exhibition games, which would field NFL teams in foreign countries to build interest in American football.

In 1986 the Record and Fact Book noted, ‘Super Bowl XX was televised to 59 foreign countries and beamed via satellite to the QE II. An estimated 300 million Chinese viewed a tape delay of the game in March' (more than a month later). The international broadcast remained at about 60 countries for the next several years; but by the end of the cold war the NFL greatly expanded the Super Bowl's reach. In 1993, according to the Record and Fact Book, the game was shown live or taped in 101 countries. However, the data for the numbers of countries and viewers are often wildly reported. For the same 1993 Super Bowl (this one was notable for Michael Jackson's ‘Heal the World' halftime performance), the Los Angeles Times reported that the NFL estimated ‘an audience of more than one billion people in the United States and 86 other countries', USA Weekend noted ‘an estimated one billion viewers in more than 70 countries', and Amusement Business (an industry journal concerned with the halftime program) explained the ‘television audience is estimated at 1.3 billion in 86 countries, which is one reason Jackson agreed to participate.'

By 1999 the estimates of audience size were smaller, but the scope of the international coverage had expanded to include more nations and more languages. The NFL reported that:

Nearly 800 million NFL fans around the world are expected to tune in to watch. International broadcasters will televise the game to at least 180 countries and territories in 24 different languages from Pro Player Stadium: Chinese (Mandarin), Danish, Catalan, Dutch, Norwegian, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish.

In addition, the game will be broadcast in Arabic, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Flemish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Icelandic, Korean, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Thai, and Turkish. Approximately 90 per cent of the international coverage will be through live telecast of Super Bowl XXXIII.

ERA in Taiwan, RDS (Canada), SAT 1 (Austria, Germany, and Switzerland), Sky (United Kingdom), TV-2 (Norway), and TV-2 (Denmark) will be broadcasting on-site for the first time.

On Sunday, 30 January 2000 the Los Angeles Times noted that ‘the game will be broadcast on 225 television stations, 450 radio stations, and in 180 countries. The cliché about a billion people in China not caring is no longer applicable.' Yet the notion that the entire world pauses to pay homage to the Super Bowl is national mythology, continuously constructed via the NFL and the U.S. mass media. As we shall argue below, it is likely that more than a billion people in China do not even have the opportunity to care about the Super Bowl.

The most interesting element of the international audience claims is that the trend (with the exception of 1993—perhaps a top talent like Michael Jackson was expected to draw a larger audience and thus generate record audience estimates) is always upward. This climbing trajectory, of course, is the trend expected of everything connected to the Super Bowl. Yet the growing number of countries receiving the broadcast and the enormous numbers of the estimated or potential audience seem to us to be more of a technical achievement than an indication of popularity. In fact, the record of the NFL's appeal beyond the borders of the United States is mixed. The League's exhibition games overseas have often gone well. For example, the first of the so-called ‘American Bowls' on 3 August 1986 at Wembley Stadium in London (and co-sponsored by the American football booster, Budweiser beer) drew a sell-out crowd of 82,699. The NFL did not take any chances, and scheduled the Super Bowl champions, the Chicago Bears, to play the high-profile Dallas Cowboys in the game (which the Bears won). In August 1994 a record crowd of 112,376 attended an American Bowl game in Mexico City between Dallas and Houston. By 2000, 34 American Bowls had been played in 11 cities outside the U.S., with an average attendance of 58,474.

Although the one-day American Bowl events do well in local attendance, as the fans watch the very best NFL talent, the NFL's attempts to establish international American football leagues have been mediocre at best. In 1991 the NFL created the World League of American Football, which would be the first sports league to operate with teams in North America and Europe, playing on a weekly basis. In 1995, after a two-year hiatus, the WLAF (an acronym with potentially annoying puns for a struggling league) returned to action with just six teams in Europe. On 23 June of that same year the Frankfurt Galaxy defeated the Amsterdam Admirals 26-22, and won the 1995 World Bowl before a crowd of 23,847 in Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium. There were plenty of empty seats there, and the NFL made no claims to a huge world audience for the World Bowl. By the 1998 season the WLAF was renamed the NFL Europe League, which continues to play with six teams. The NFL's international division—formerly founded as NFL International in 1996—continues its efforts to build grass-roots interest in American football through activities such as sponsored flag football leagues in every NFL Europe city and in Japan, Canada, and Mexico. By 2000 NFL International boasted that more than one million children around the world played NFL Flag Football, and counted Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Japan among its ‘priority markets'.

More Excerpts From Sport in America