*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on February 3, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Today, over 100 million Americans will gather to consume guacamole and gawk at the genuine spectacle Americans know as the Super Bowl. About one-third of us will catch the game in full or in part, making it the nearest we come to a country-wide meet-up. In these socially and politically divided times, this moment of national assembly matters all the more.
There’s nothing quite like the Super Bowl on television. Last year’s game slipped to 103.4 million viewers, the smallest estimated audience since 2009, which was a wee bit south of the most watched game in history, when 114.4 million tuned-in in 2015.
If you do a quick search of the most watched television programs in American history, you’ll find that the M.A.S.H. series finale (1983) and Roots (Ep. VIII, 1977) hit 100 million—but the rest of the top viewed American shows of all time are Super Bowls.
Blasphemy as it is to hard-core fans, but it doesn’t matter much who plays. The game draws the eyes of the nation, year in and year out, to watch the Great American Football Show.
And the Super Bowl’s economic impact is significant, real, and important. Just ask local liquor store owners, or companies paying through-the-nostrils for television commercials, which are reportedly going at the rate of $5 million per 30 seconds (about $170,000 for every tick of the clock’s tiny hand).
But it is the Super Bowl’s social impact that matters most. The simple fact that so many of us are all congregating for the same thing at the same time matters. Greatly.
Because nowadays, so much else divides us. It’s not just the old culprits, like race and class and gender and religion, all which still exist and still exert a powerful divisive impact on us. On top of that we can add a hefty modern dose of subconscious self-sorting and social media algorithms that reinforce the divisions.
Without even knowing it, we often choose our neighborhoods and networks in ways that make us prisoners of our own personal bubbles. And they’ve received a powerful exponential boost through our social media habits. It’s become easy to head home to little islands where everyone is very much like ourselves, an experience that’s only been amplified by our online habits. The result is that, more and more we’re doing less and less with wide, diverse groups of Americans.
Television is a great example of this digital division. Now the goal for building hit television shows is narrowcasting to a smaller, more passionate audience—as opposed to broadcasting, where the aim is for the broadest audience possible. Cable news is the most extreme version: If you’re one type of person you put on MSNBC, and if you’re another type of person you put on Fox News. It may be television’s golden age, but it’s also a much more solitary experience than it used to be.
Except for the Super Bowl. Sure, there are some true fans that look for key matchups, know who’s likely to make a game-breaking play, anticipate all the storylines the announcers will raise during the game, and make iron-clad preparations to ensure not a single second or play is missed. But the number of these Super Bowl Super Fans pales in comparison to the vast majority of casual fans that only see a handful of games (or just this one game) each year.
It matters that “we the people” do something together, even if it is something as trivial as football. That we talk about the same game. That we laugh at the same commercials. That we jeer at the same halftime show (or that we leer at the same “uniform malfunction”).
Of course, the game won’t come without some controversy, as the debate over athletes that kneel in protest for social justice will likely continue at this Super Bowl. But nations are like families in this way, they argue and bicker and disagree, but what matters most is that in the end everyone’s sitting together, watching the same game.
And when it’s all done Sunday night, we’ll have something to talk about, together, on Monday.
That is, until Tuesday, and many Americans rush back into their red and blue partisan corners for the next big event on the television calendar: the State of the Union Address.