Massive appeal is name of game

The Baltimore Sun

What would we do without the Super Bowl?

In the absence of football's biggest annual shindig, it's hard to think of another single-day event - short of Armageddon - so universal that it can be used as shorthand to explain the immensity of anything.

Even with NFL lawyers vigorously enforcing licensing agreements, the name has been used to describe everything from a high school robot-building competition ("The Super Bowl of Smarts") to a fundraiser by a Houston food bank (The Souper Bowl).

The game between the AFC and NFC champions has become too big for itself. No less an authority than ABC News declared in January 2007 that the Super Bowl is "the Super Bowl of advertising."

"The reason it's become so big is there is really nothing else like it," says Robert Thompson, pop culture expert and professor at Syracuse University. "It's the most successful created holiday since Lincoln declared Thanksgiving. It's a time when we're all feeding at the same cultural trough."

The game wasn't officially named "Super Bowl" until the third contest, the one between the Baltimore Colts and you-know-who.

The first two events carried the snazzy title, "AFL-NFL World Championship Game." Football lore has it that then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle favored the name "The Big One," which would have left junkman Fred Sanford speechless.

But Rozelle wisely bowed to the wisdom of AFL founder and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who came up with the name after watching his daughter playing with a mega-bounce "super ball."

"Super Bowl has come to mean the epitome, the height, the apex. ... Everyone knows what it means," Thompson says.

Other sports have glommed onto the Super Bowl to characterize an institutional Big Enchilada.

The Heritage Classic, the first outdoor game in NHL history in November 2003, was said by The Globe and Mail in Toronto to have had a "Super Bowl-like atmosphere."

The Bassmaster Classic is often referred to as the Super Bowl of bass fishing.

Detroit Pistons captain Chauncey Billups said last month that the Boston Celtics were playing "like it's the Super Bowl."

Even the 5-11 Ravens found a way to play in two Super Bowls this season - losing both. First was a game against the unbeaten New England Patriots ("Monday night is our Super Bowl," Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle vowed). Then came the game against the then-0-13 Miami Dolphins. ("It felt like a Super Bowl in my suite," weepy Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga said after the overtime win.)

At one time, the Cadillac played the role of superlative. Christmas has certainly been used. Sports fans fell back on the World Series, although that wasn't a one-day, winner-take-all proposition.

The Super Bowl has been embraced, Thompson believes, because it fills several societal roles: It comes at a time when we've recovered from the holidays; it falls far enough into the calendar that New Year's resolutions "have all crashed and burned"; it breaks up the dead of winter; and it has a set date.

"The Super Bowl has become so much a national holiday," Thompson says, "that 200 years from now, when there is no NFL and people are no longer playing football ... people will still get together in the dark of winter on Super Bowl Sunday for a high-alcohol, high-sodium, good old-fashioned party."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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