So here we are again in the bye week between the wildly exciting NFL playoffs and the sure-to-disappoint Super Bowl. Why do I say that? How many Super Bowls are exciting. Even last year's Giants-Patriots matchup seemed a bit of let down. No NFL needs a two week buildup. And they can't live up to it. The hype and bologna around the event dwarf the game itself. Just wait until this week when every station sends someone to Tampa - every radio show, tv show, newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, town crier will have someone there. And there will be 168 hours of coverage, culminated by the ten hour Super Bowl pregame show and the parade of commercials. And then eventually the game itself (with Bruce Springsteen playing at halftime). The game is almost an afterthought. It takes something unbelievable to launch the game into legen-(wait for it)-dary status.
For the NFL, this is often based on the teams involved. A truly great matchup with two truly great teams don't need hype. That will organically happen. But when you have games like Carolina vs. New England or Arizona vs. Pittsburgh, the hype machine starts running. Why? The NFL needs the ratings. They need the whole country to be involved. And in the NFL, the way to make sure that happens is to have the right teams in the game. Basically you can break the NFL down into four categories as far as interest in the teams go: National, Regional, State, and City. A National team has fans all across the country. Regional teams have tons of fans in states all around its home base. State teams are pretty much THE DEAL in their state, or have lots of fans in their state and right around it. City teams, um, have fans in their city - and that's about it. These are the teams that always are in danger of relocating. They just don't have the support they need in the modern NFL market.
National teams usually are teams that have been successful for a long time - and have had success in several decades. They have fans of all ages. They are always relevant - even surviving bad stretches. Each of the National teams had bad streaks, but they became players again. (You can actually do this with every sport.) Regional teams are wildly popular in their area - and may be on the verge of becoming National teams. Some of those teams have been good for a while, but they don't have the older fans (Indy, N.E.). Some were good, but have been out of it for a while (San Fran, K.C). Here is how I break down the NFL in those categories.
NATIONAL TEAMS (6)
New York Giants
New York Jets
REGIONAL TEAMS (10)
STATE TEAMS (10)
CITY TEAMS (6)
I'm sure I would catch some flack for some of these categorizations. But I tried to evaluate based on several things. First, as I travel around, I notice which teams are popular in which areas. How far is their reach? How many miles away can you get their merchandise in gas stations? Second, based on going to games in Jacksonville and Tampa, I look to see which visiting teams sell out the stadium. I've been to Pittsburgh vs. the Jaguars. More Steeler fans than home town players. The same deal with the Packers. When it comes to Houston, Buffalo, Detroit - lots of very empty seats. Third, which teams are considered "marquee" teams by the League?
Sure, things can change with the teams. A really good player can escalate a team (Manning with the Colts). A really stupid coach can submarine a team (Marvin Lewis with the Bungles). The challenge is whether those teams will be viable or rebound after the current lineup leaves town. Remember, the Cowboys went 1-15 once. Their head coach was once a guy named Dave Campo. But they still are the highest selling team in the NFL - even if their current roster plan is trying to compile a real life The Longest Yard.
Now, the NFL would ideally be able to put on Super Bowls with some combination of the National teams - with appearances by up and coming Regional teams, with hopes of them becoming National teams. So the NFL is thrilled when a matchup like last year comes along - a National vs. a big time Regional (Giants vs. Patriots). Throw in the back story of the quest for 19-0, the underdog Giants, a Manning brother at play. Let's just say it is hard to top that. Cowboys/Steelers has happened three times to huge ratings. So that's ideal. When a team like Atlanta, San Diego, Tampa, Cincinnati gets involved - it may make for good stories. But it just doesn't make for good ratings. There just isn't a big following for those teams. [The exception would be the Buffalo Bills during their heyday. They are a total City team, but their players and story were quite engaging. Watching the same team choke away four straight Super Bowls? Man, that is just amazing television.]
However, the addendum to this is that the NFL wants to engage as many areas of the country as possible. You want an Eastern team to play a Western, or a Northern to play a Southern. Ideally, if the teams were in two major markets, even better. The Colts/Bears game was two big Regionals with Peyton Manning, the minority coach story line. It should have been huge. But since both teams were within the upper Midwest, it seemed small. I remember some of the biggest games from ones I watched were Oakland/Washington, Giants/Broncos, Cowboys/Bills. There was a big distance involved, which seemed to ramp up the interest. When you get games like Chargers/49ers, Eagles/Patriots, Tennessee/St. Louis - they just seem smaller.
So we get to this year's matchup. You have a National team (Pittsburgh) against a State team (Arizona). There is a good distance going on. Phoenix is a big market, even though Pittsburgh is not - its huge fan base will make up for that. You have some big stars and some good stories going on. The problem is that the Cardinals have virtually no fan base. Most of Arizona are still Cowboy fans. And the St. Louis fans have either abandoned them or jumped on the Rams or Chiefs wagons. Honestly, they get so little airplay that most people couldn't name ten of their players. That is going to hurt viewership. A lot of people think the matchup is not even close, assuming the Steelers are going to destroy the inexperienced Cardinals. That will hurt. And the commercials have been so disappointing lately, combined with the fact that advertisers are spending less. So I doubt that there are going to be any hall of fame ads going on.
So here is my prediction. I think the game will seem dwarfed by the surrounding goofiness. It will be exciting, but ultimately disappoint. I doubt it will be a blowout - Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin won't allow that. There will be some cool movie previews to watch. And it will be mostly forgettable. But The Boss will probably put on one heck of a show.
Oh, you wanted a sports breakdown? Go read ESPN. I don't know that stuff.