The Super Bowl is a 21st Century American spectacle echoing the ancient, Roman tradition of combat games in the Coliseum or annual sporting events in the Circus Maximus. It allows us to look back and forward at the same time.
But, let's look at the NOW first.
Before Super Bowl 50's kickoff tonight you are likely to hear a LOT of numbers. Some will be accurate and some will be "truthy." According to a PRRI/RNS survey, 68% of adult Americans report that they are likely to watch Super Bowl 50, with 43% saying they are "very likely." If history is any guide, this will translate to a television audience of over 100 million viewers. Last year's Super Bowl XLIX polled somewhat stronger viewer interest at 49% very likely and had an average audience of 114.4 million viewers. Of course, if you're a cricket fan in India and you're reading this, you're chuckling at these paltry numbers. The February 15, 2015 Cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan was viewed by nearly 1 billion fans.
Coming back to America, polling from a 2014 AP/GfK survey shows that 68% of us would attend the game tonight IF we could afford the tickets. But, if you're like most of us and watching Super Bowl 50 from home, we know you're more than likely to be enjoying (1) chicken wings (27%), (2) pizza (27%), and (3) chips and salsa (13%) in that order. Only around 4% will be consuming "pigs-in-a-blanket" - a dish that is almost impossible to describe to someone outside these United States. Critically, pizza has been gaining on chicken wings recently, perhaps as a result of ubiquitous advertising and endless innovation. But, collectively, we will consume roughly 1.3 Billion wings on Super Bowl weekend.
This Super Bowl also highlights the rise of Latinos in American life. ESPN Deportes will telecast Super Bowl 50 this year in Spanish, with Alvaro Martin and Raul Allegre doing the play-by-play and commentary. The Latino market is of great interest to the NFL, which just announced a game in Mexico City next year.
The history of spectacular sporting events as national ritual is long. The Super Bowl, with its typically Roman numerals (dropped for the 50th) hearkens back to ancient Rome, a civilization many of the Founding Fathers studied when writing the Constitution. There is a reason why so many of our federal buildings in Washington resemble Roman temples. The epic sporting events of the Coliseum come leaping to mind, but the Circus Maxiumus with its annual ludi -- public sporting events of municipal and religious significance may be a closer relation. Pax Romana had its bread, circuses and legions. Pax Americana has chicken wings, the Super Bowl and aircraft carriers.
Closer to North America is the ancient ball game played by the Mayans and Aztecs as ritual and substitute for warfare. The Aztec ball courts and stadiums featured skull racks known as tzompantli, something we are unlikely to see in Levi's Stadium tonight. Fortunately for Newton and Manning, American Football has not copied the MesoAmerican game, which often featured the death sacrifice of its players.
Looking out in time, this Super Bowl highlights several future trends -- the rise of data and the crowd.
Super Bowl 50 has already been played -- in simulations and by gamers. In fact, Electronic Arts' NFL video game franchise, Madden, has accurately predicted 9 of the last 12 winners. Madden predicts a final score of Panthers 24, Broncos 20. Vegas money is reportedly showing the same result, with heavy betting on the Panthers offset in the last few days with a surge of betting on Denver. Simulations will almost certainly gain momentum as they become ever stronger representations of the players and the teams. Vegas will surely take note. Call it the rise of data AND gaming.
A related trend is the rise of the crowd. The crowd, with the aid of technology, is pushing its way in. Consider eSports, the playing of video games for a spectator audience, is on the rise. eSports tournaments and prizes are gaining momentum rapidly. The game will be played by far more than the players. And, if the crowd can play, why can't it coach? After all, play calling has moved from the Quarterback, to the sidelines, to the booth. Why can't it move to the fans -- to a group of fans -- themselves? This was already attempted in Minor League Baseball by the 2006 Schaumberg Flyers, too mixed results. But, we should expect more experimentation and innovation in this space. It is not hard to imagine fans using an app to collectively call offensive and defensive plays. Twitter feeds during football games are an early clue into fan interest in this potential future.
Armchair Quarterbacks unite, you have nothing to lose but your games.