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The Super Bowl and the GDP 

I rarely watch football, but I watched the Super Bowl the other night and actually enjoyed it. It was a close enough game to be consistently drama-laden and had (for a New Yorker at least) a satisfying ending.

But even the best football games have a lot of down time as teams huddle, referees confer, and every interesting play is shown over and over from a seemingly endless number of camera angles. So, being an economic historian, while waiting for the game to resume, I began thinking about the economics of a remarkable American phenomenon called the Super Bowl. It is one that now consumes the attention of the entire country every February but didn’t even exist 50 years ago. It has no small effect on the GDP.

The Super Bowl is much more than a football game. It is a continent-wide spectacle as American as apple pie. The hype leading up to the game is enormous, a part of every sports report for two weeks ahead of the game.

Its local economic effect is huge. Indianapolis probably generated somewhere around $500 million in local GDP, thanks to the game, with hotels, restaurants, and caterers doing a land-office business in the days before the kickoff. The amount of fuel consumed by the private jets that choked the Indianapolis airport was prodigious, and the airport parking fees substantial. Best of all, from the city’s standpoint, was the fact that this was all outside money, unlike a regular Colts game at the same stadium. Scalpers, of course, had a field day. A single seat was reported sold for more than $16,000.

But the economic ramifications spread countrywide. A billion Buffalo wings were consumed in tens of thousands of Super Bowl parties from sea to shining sea on Sunday night. Bars were jammed with raucous fans, but I bet there was immediate seating at many upscale restaurants where reservations are usually hard to get.

The TV audience was reported as being 107 million—a third of the country—with no-one-knows how many more watching it streaming on the Internet. The Super Bowl is part of a package of TV rights, one that includes regular season and post-season games, and it rotates among the four major broadcast networks. But the package is an expensive one. The current one cost the networks, plus ESPN, $20.9 billion. The next one, to run from 2014 to 2022, will set them back $39.6 billion for the same rights.

For an indication of just how much the TV rights to the Super Bowl would cost if sold separately, look at the commercials. While commercial breaks on television are usually a time to hit the head or the icebox, the commercials for the Super Bowl have evolved into a spectacle themselves, often as interesting as the game (sometimes more so). The tradition of out-of-the-ordinary Super Bowl commercials dates back to, at least, Super Bowl XVIII, when Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh computer with the now-iconic 1984 commercial.

On Sunday, NBC charged a staggering $3.6 million for a single 30-second spot. At that price, no production expense is spared. They featured such we-don’t-come-cheap stars as Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Clint Eastwood, and Elton John. Many had terrific special effects and computer-generated graphics, as well as great imagination and humor.

Every micro-second of these commercials is carefully, painstakingly thought out, and the shooting schedules extensive. The result, of course, is a lot more generated GDP, as many people are involved in the making of these commercials, all of them well paid.

English professors will tell you that “poetry is the form of literature with the highest correlation between what is said and how it is said.” If that is true, then Super Bowl commercials, at their best, are the poetry of the age.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the half-time show. I’ve seen better—if far less expensive—productions on cruise ships. Madonna was trying, unsuccessfully, to act half her age. The production, while over-the-top, was utterly incoherent. It began with Madonna arriving in a vast float pulled by laboring Roman soldiers (à la Elizabeth Taylor’s arrival in Rome in the movie Cleopatra) and ended with a plea for world peace. Was this a commercial for a return to the Pax Romana? Who knows?

Some singer I have never heard of, named M.I.A. (and too bad she wasn’t), gave the world a middle-finger salute–about as unprofessional as it is possible to be in show business. The songs were lip-synched. There were, I’m told, several songs, but when one ended and another began I know not, as the music all sounded exactly alike and the words were–lip-synched or not–completely incomprehensible. That, I suspect, was a blessing for those who care about careful lyric writing.

In short, it was a disaster. That, perhaps, is not surprising, as it was produced by the NFL, which knows a lot about turning pigskin into profit, but, obviously, not much about how to stage an effective live performance. I’d suggest that in the future they cut Broadway in for a slice of Super Bowl GDP, and hire a producer with a proven track-record of putting on hit musicals.

The Super Bowl, like Christmas and the 4th of July, is now deeply embedded in American culture. Indeed it’s hard to imagine an America without it. And it now generates economic activity that falls somewhere between those two other major events of the American calendar.


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