University Park, Pa. -- Super Bowl Sunday is the first holiday created solely by "conspicuous consumption" without ties to religion, heritage or history in America, and yet the holiday is fully embraced by the public, according to Penn State researchers.
"In many ways, Super Bowl Sunday represents the appearance of an entirely new type of holiday in American culture," say Mark Dyreson and Peter Hopsicker, authors of the chapter "Super Bowl Sunday: A New American Holiday?" for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days, published by Greenwood Press.
"Created by secular commercial interests entirely for secular and commercial purposes, Super Bowl Sunday represents the triumph of consumer culture over older social patterns," the researchers say. "This celebration combines Thanksgiving-like feasting, Fourth of July-like Americanism, and Christmas-like commercialism into a spectacle that draws the largest audience for any event in modern national life."
Dyreson is associate professor of kinesiology and history at Penn State's University Park campus, and Hopsicker is assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State Altoona.
Nearly four decades after the first Super Bowl in 1967, the extravaganza has clearly become an enormously popular national event, say the authors. While not listed among the nation's official holidays, the public has clearly embraced the spectacle by voting with their leisure time and their pocketbooks, according to the chapter.
At the same time, many of the traditional holidays have been trivialized as brief escapes from work, retail sales and backyard barbecues: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus and Veterans Day.
At the beginning of the 21st century, more than 200 million Americans attend a variety of festive parties focused on the professional football championship game. Two-thirds of TVs switched on at the same time are tuned in to the game with more than half of the U.S. population at home and millions more at bars, churches or other public places, say the researchers.
The event affects retail stores, religious services, entertainment industry, social patterns, and automotive, airline and telephone traffic, say Dyreson and Hopsicker.
The sports historians trace the origins of American football history traditions, and the Super Bowl itself. They outline the efforts of the professional football, television and advertising industries to promote the event over the decades as well as the impact on ticket prices, TV advertising rates, TV ratings and shares.
"On Super Bowl Sunday, Americans eat more chips, popcorn, pretzels and snack nuts than on any other day of the year," the researchers note. "Millions of consumers tune in not only for the football but also for the new advertising icons from beer-guzzling lizards and dogs."
Dyreson and Hopsicker also point out the economic benefits to cities hosting the Super Bowl since the late 1960s, particularly Sunbelt cities in warm climates. Plus, home cities of Super Bowl teams use the event to market their urban identities in the national arena.
Snowy northern metropolises rarely get a chance to host a Super Bowl -- Detroit in 2006 is a rarity. For declining Rust Belt cities Super Bowl victories "temporarily salved the wounds of lost manufacturing jobs and faltering national prestige," the researchers say. "No team better represented the power of Super Bowl championships in revitalizing civic pride in the midst of long-term urban decay than the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s."
Politicians also benefited from connections to the Super Bowl with bets and presidential phone calls to winning quarterbacks. In 1985, the press widely misreported that the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan conflicted with Super Bowl Sunday and was moved to Monday by the government because Reagan had agreed to toss the coin to begin the game. The reports, though inaccurate, resulted in strong media criticism.
In 1991 during the first Gulf War, the NFL staged a patriotic spectacular, and in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Super Bowl XXXVI was wrapped in red, white and blue symbolism, patriotic songs and more overtly nationalistic displays than any other championship, according to the chapter.
"Religious groups also have adapted to the new realities and sought to connect sacred practices to Super Bowl's secular ceremonies," Dyreson and Hopsicker say. "Churches modify their worship schedule and many groups sponsor SB parties or SB-related sermons.
They add "Super Bowl Sunday is an event that resonates deeply with the nation's consuming masses, emerging from an intersection of design and desire. SBS may have provided the blueprint for the way in which holidays are constructed in an age of conspicuous consumption."