In the most jaw-dropping, gut-twisting, Super Bowl ever played, the Pittsburgh Steelers escaped by the skin of their gold and black unis, winning 27-23 over the Arizona Cardinals, with two lead changes in the last two minutes and thirty seconds. In normal times, it would be a staggering upset for the actual game to overshadow our annual Mardi Gras for millionaires and carnival of commercialism that attends it. But in penny-pinching 2009, football was at the center of the spectacle. And a good thing, too: otherwise, in living rooms across America, the enormity of America’s first Recession Super Bowl would have been just too grim.
For much of the week, the spectacle seemed doomed to be engulfed in gray confetti: the global economic crisis became the National Football League’s own. The annual orgy of commerce and excess was as stripped down as an i-banker’s portfolio. The city of Tampa took in $30 million less than expected, and there were empty hotel suites in Super Bowl Florida in February. Tickets to the game were being hawked in the shadow market for below retail. Even the Playboy and Victoria’s Secret parties were canceled: who would tell the nation’s sportswriters how impossibly handsome they are?
Super Bowl commercials reflected the new economic reality as well, with the usual frathouse sexism making way for ads that reflected the concerns of ordinary Americans. There was Avon cosmetics sales woman–Daryn from Texas–saying, “If someone asks me how they can make money right now, I say do what I’m doing, sell Avon.” There were those endlessly creepy talking babies from e-Trade grousing about how the “economy is a little rough.” I don’t think many of us are rushing to do e-trading these days. General Motors and FedEx, longtime Superbowl advertisers, didn’t have their game faces on this year, which put a crimp in NBC’s expected ad revenues.
A Budweiser ad put corporate types in a board room, wondering where all the profits had gone, with not one explosively gassy horse in sight. Production budgets were set to low all around. Matt Lauer’s pre-game interview with Barack Obama suffered from audio malfunctions (less exciting than a wardrobe malfunction.) There was even a representative of the only growth industry in the United States right now: the armed forces, as the Great Occupier himself, General David Petraeus, tossed the coin.
Even the halftime show was recession-oriented, featuring our Troubadour of Hard Times, Bruce Springsteen. (Is there a rule in the post-Janet Jackson era that all halftime performers must be men over 50?) The Boss didn’t fulfill the wishes of New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton and “[go] rogue and rail against…those corporate fat cats.” In fact, Bruce was in the unlikely position of fending off his own critics before the big game, with an apology for signing an exclusive deal with the anti-union Wal Mart corporation. Unaddressed was the downside of his decision to take part in a halftime show sponsored by Bridgestone-Firestone, a company that sees unions the way Dick Cheney sees the International Criminal Court.
But musically speaking, Springsteen was in fine form, sliding crotch-first into the camera in a fashion even Janet Jackson would have found startling. But then came the finest fourth quarter ever played, and the entire affair was dipped into a Lombardi-infused Lourdes. In the end, football fans won’t remember the off-key commercials or the economic overcast. The night belonged to Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Santonio Holmes and Larry Fitzgerald, as it should.
Times are tough, and any hope we may be feeling by changes in Washington is tempered by the millions out of work, out of their homes, and out of luck. The game had to take center stage. And this year, football–the very sport itself–rose to the challenge. Maybe the country can, too.