Biggest Unofficial U.S. Holiday

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The NFL is throwing its biggest party Sunday, trading in the glitz of Miami and the panache of New Orleans for the cruise ships, street fairs and wide-eyed wonder of Jacksonville.

About 140 million people are expected to tune for America's biggest unofficial holiday, a day where football lovers and nonenthusiasts alike gather around their televisions to see the commercials, the halftime show and — yes — even the Super Bowl itself.

This year's contest pits the Philadelphia Eagles, seeking their first NFL championship since 1960, against the New England Patriots, who were going for their third championship in four years — in other words, a dynasty in what is supposed to be an era of parity.

"We don't care about what happened last year, or in the past," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during the week. "We're just looking at this year."

In the wake of last year's halftime "wardrobe malfunction," this year's entertainment was to be a family-friendly set by Paul McCartney.

When Jacksonville was awarded the game over Miami four years ago, cynics scoffed and pessimists howled. How could a mid-sized city, the second-smallest market in the NFL behind Green Bay, host the 80,000 people who pay $500 to $600 for tickets (that's face value) along with the thousands of others who come just to be part of the fun?

The city paid $11.7 million to get five cruise ships to docked on the St. Johns River to make up for a deficiency in hotel rooms. The 3,700 rooms the ships provided brought the total to more than 17,500, which is the minimum mandated by the NFL.

Hundreds of volunteers wearing red shirts crowded the streets, using their homespun charm to overwhelm even the most hardened critics — many of whom had seen the game in more cosmopolitan cities and came here with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But the crowd sure seemed to be having fun. A gigantic fireworks show lit up the warm, clear night over the St. Johns on Saturday. Meanwhile, the cruise ships buzzed — their bars and lounges full — and the outlying cities of Jacksonville Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine took on the feel of Mardi Gras on the ocean.

As always, though, the bulk of Americans would enjoy the game from the couch.

Some 140 million people were expected to watch at least a portion of the game at an estimated 7.5 million Super Bowl parties. Sales of big-screen TVs increase fivefold during the week before the game. Americans eat more food on Super Bowl Sunday than any day but Thanksgiving, including 14,500 tons of chips.

Advertisers paid an average of $2.4 million to show off a 30-second spot that is almost always specially produced for the game. As much as the game, the ads usually provide the water-cooler conversation for the next few days at work.

The ads were a little less risque than in years past thanks to a squeaky clean-up in the wake of last year's halftime debacle, when Janet Jackson's top was torn off by Justin Timberlake, setting off a frenzy of outrage from the NFL to the Federal Communications Commission to Congress.

This year, it was McCartney taking the stage in what was expected to be a 12-minute show. Networks began using tape delays on some live programs to avoid slip-ups like Jackson's, but Fox promised no part of its Super Bowl telecast would be put on a delay.

"Basically, we're treating the Super Bowl as a news event," Fox spokesman Dan Bell said. "We don't believe in tape delaying news events."

Indeed, the Super Bowl is big news, and never has it affected a single city more than it did Jacksonville.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was among those impressed with the city's effort.

"My feeling is it will be back here at some point," he said.