“Sometimes I’ll drive by the old stadium,” Lisa Carver said, “and it kind of feels like a dream. You can almost hear the cheers from the crowds, even though the place is empty” (Bob Greene, CNN, Feb. 5).
The annual hoopla is underway again in what has become America’s foremost celebration, the Super Bowl. As I write, two of the NFL’s most storied teams, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, will take-on each other like two brontosauruses for mastery. It’s a field day for television, with myriad analysts honing their skills in prophecy like Delphi oracles. Pre-game coverage began hours ago on some networks. In all, 100 million Americans will watch the Fox Network broadcast. In countless homes, families and friends will hover in obeisance, gorging themselves with burgers, beer, and cheese dip into the late evening. No other happening unites Americans apart from catastrophes such as 9/11 or the assassination of a president. Today also marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, one of America’s most popular presidents. The Super Bowl washes away reminiscence. It is the moment, the Super Bowl moment.
When I grew up, baseball was America’s past time. In those pre-TV days, I would play with trucks and toy soldiers on the living room floor, our radio tuned to the Phillies game. A daily ritual, I became knowledgeable about the game, followed the players, combed the newspaper for their stats, and above all, checked the league standings. In summer, each day found me playing ball with neighborhood toughs using a broom stick to bang a half tennis ball against factory walls. I couldn’t get enough. We didn’t have gloves, cleats, Little League. We didn’t have a playground with manicured grass and raked diamond. It didn’t matter: baseball was our frenzy and stickball our game.
Today, America’s game is football, whether college or NFL, its culmination, a national playoff for the colleges; the Super Bowl for the NFL. TV ratings have been the best in 20 years and provided the NFL with 4 billion earnings. Then there is advertising, which has now become an alluring plus for the Super Bowl audience, a kind of Passadena Rose Bowl procession of visual floats, digitally rendered, replete with a prize winner at its end. One 30 second spot costs 3 million.
After the game is over this evening in Cowboys Stadium, a monument itself to money at 1.2 billion, what then? On March 3, the present contract between the players and the owners expires. The two sides seem far apart. A lockout threatens. Owners want some of the player outlay reduced.
They want new policies regulating rookie salaries and retirement. They seek revenue enhancement by adding two games, presently 16, to the season schedule.
On the other hand, players don’t want to fork over any percentage of their earnings. They want to divvy up more of the league revenue, this year, 9 billion. They adamantly oppose adding games, arguing it would increase the chances of injuries. The last stoppage was in 1987.
In 1994, major league baseball went on strike. They didn’t even finish the season, going out in August. For the first time in over 60 years, there wasn’t a World Series. The impact was enormous, with the public expressing its chagrin in diminished numbers going past the turnstiles. Only the burgeoning home run derby of 1996 saved the gave from further demise, though we later discovered its steroid origins. While attendance is now up, many clubs can barely pay their way, subjecting their fans to engrained mediocrity.
Today, football reigns as America’s passion. The fans have been generous, especially given the worst economic turndown since the Great Depression. I read today of many out of a job more than two years and losing even their extended unemployment compensation. One gentleman sent out hundreds of applications. He couldn’t land even a cashier’s job. The average cost for a family of four to go to an NFL game is $250. The ticket price at tonight’s game reserves most of the seating for the money tier.
These days, big time sports have chosen to get in the “follow the money” lane. They expect our beleaguered cities to float bonds to finance their sumptuous new stadiums. They threaten to leave if they don’t get their way. Sometimes they get their way and leave anyway. Both in football and baseball, the urban landscape is littered with abandoned stadiums financed by the people. For fans, football and baseball should exist for them; for the owners and players, they exist to make money.