The Billion Dollar Game:
Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day in American Sport
By Allen St. John
Doubleday; 264 pages
Even Barack Obama can't match the Super Bowl's hype. By the eve of "the world's biggest single-day sporting event," even casual fans can recite the betting line, retrace Kurt Warner's journey from an Iowa supermarket to the cusp of the Hall of Fame, or explain why the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme bedevils opponents. St. John's book is not for those casual fans. The veteran sportswriter and Wall Street Journal columnist spent a year covering the foot soldiers who prep the gridiron for gloryand who ensure the event is delivered to an electrified crowd, in flawless high-def, and with proper acoustics. In meticulous detail, St. John takes readers into the Super Bowl's engine rooms with this series of profiles of the marketers and ad execs, party planners and TV producers, architects and gophers charged with buffing the game to its glossy shine. (See pictures of Super Bowl entertainment through the ages.)
1. On how the Super Bowl got its name: "If Commissioner [Pete] Rozelle, the acknowledged father of the Super Bowl, had his way, it would have been called the AFL-NFL Championship Game, which isn't so much a name as a description. Briefly, there was some sentiment in favor of The Big One, which, at best, sounds like something on a fast-food chain's menu. Then [Kansas City Chiefs owner] Lamar Hunt got into the picture... Around the time of the merger negotiations, Hunt saw his son and daughter playing with a new ball from Wham-O that was almost impossibly bouncy. It wasn't such a leap from Super Ball to Super Bowl. Hunt brought it up at an owners' meeting, and over Rozelle's strong objectionsthe name stuck." (See the top 10 sports moments of 2008.)
2. On a party held on Miami's South Beach that ranked among the best of the pre-Super Bowl bashes: "One section of the beach was furnished with couches and upholstered chairs arranged in front of a stage with a steel drum band and Latin dancers gyrating on platforms. Just to one side, chefs churned up paella with shovels...In another cabana, they were handing out Super Bowl commemorative Crocsblue with orange or orange with blue, all gratis. The party felt busy, but there was never a line, whether it was for the roast pig at the savory station, the decadent bittersweet chocolate truffles on the desert tray, or the top-shelf liquor at one of the bars. Wretched excess was exactly enough." (Read "Thrown for a Loss: Super Bowl Parties.")
3. On the pre-game musical preparation: "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers practiced their twelve minutes of music for at least twelve hours, while the technical aspects of the programfrom the logistics of rolling the stage on and off the field to the roles of the hundreds of extras to the places of the pyrotechnicswere practiced even more without the band on hand. Even Jordin Sparks' rendition of the National Anthemtwo minutes and nine seconds longwas practiced again and again."
St. John's narrative is laced with intimate portraits and fresh figures did you know the resale value of a stadium's worth of tickets exceeds $500 million, or that Americans consume eight million pounds of guacamole on game day? that enliven the organizational challenge of carrying off the world's biggest bash without a hitch. The choice to ignore the superstars on the field in favor of the game's unsung laborers is a refreshing angle, even if he seems half-ready to douse them in Gatorade. Readers' reactions will likely hinge on whether they consider the Super Bowl the apotheosis of sport or of marketing. For many, the game whose broadcast reaches some 100 million viewers and possesses an economic footprint larger than the GDP of 25 nations has had its appeal overshadowed by the neon-lit, focus-grouped spectacle that surrounds it. St. John anticipates those sentiments. "Sure, this billion dollar game harbors the crass and the commercial," he concedes. "But for a few short hours at least, the truly base and the evil must wait outside the door because we're watching the game. The Super Bowl is possibility, it is opportunity, it is hope, it is dreams." From here the Gatorade doesn't taste quite as sweet.
The Verdict: Skim