It’s Time to Stop Pretending the Super Bowl Is About Football

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

I don’t know how much of this country actually believes Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift are part of a clandestine NFL deep state plot to re-elect Joe Biden. I haven’t yet seen any polling on that question. But there must be an audience for the conspiracy because it keeps getting pushed by far-right pundits, candidates and newscasters.

These incel-age Nostradamuses say that Swift and Kelce are an “artificially culturally propped-up couple,” that in fact “it’s all been an op since day one” and even that “major league sports, in and of itself is nothing but a psy-op.” Their conclusion is absurd, of course, but their premise is sound. This is the year of the Taylor Swift Super Bowl and, at least as a cultural moment, it feels too big to be true.

When asked about this conspiracy at his annual pre-Super Bowl press conference this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell broke out of his usual robot routine to joke “there’s no way I could have scripted that one.” His noticeable talking point here was that Swift “knows great entertainment.”

And he’s right, this is great entertainment. That’s what the Super Bowl is about—entertainment. The Super Bowl hasn’t been about football for decades. It’s about the commercials and the halftime show and the five-layer dip at the parties. Super Bowl Sunday has as much to do with football as the Macy’s Day Parade has to do with walking.

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Not to belabor the metaphor, but you don’t want to be the guy at Thanksgiving complaining about how the Macy’s Day Parade balloons are too big and flashy. And you don’t want to be the guy at the Super Bowl party complaining about how the Super Bowl just isn’t about football anymore.

This year’s Super Bowl will be held at the second most-expensive stadium ever built, recently erected at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. The average ticket goes for nearly 10 grand. A 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs $7 million this year. From the Reba McEntire national anthem to the confetti falling on the big shiny football trophy and the Super Bowl Champions’ brand new matching hats, this is a performance of American ostentatiousness.

With Swift there, this is guaranteed to be the most-watched sporting event in American history. And we know she’s going to be there because the Japanese Embassy recently reassured the world that Swift can perform in Tokyo on Saturday and attend the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on Sunday. That’s right, the Japanese Embassy is involved—the channels of international diplomacy have been activated for this thing.

This is what America is now. We may have normalized mass tragedies and rotted our brains on social media, but damn, we sure can put on a show. And let’s be honest, we haven’t made this big a show of the American dream since COVID.

You don’t have to believe in this uniquely American dream of fame and smiling fortune to recognize its allure—none of this is new. When Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were an item 80 years ago, they took all the headlines. After their wedding, William Hearst’s tabloid crooned that “shock waves swept around the world.” This whole popstar-sportsman romance narrative did not begin with Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. And it might not be for you, but it’s for a lot of people.

If you’re exhausted with that narrative, fine, pick another. This is the Super Bowl of Super Bowls, you can have whatever you want. If you want something more Shakespearean, here’s one: With a win, 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey finally gets the chance to step out of the shadow of his father, who won three Super Bowls.

Or here’s my favorite: The 49ers quarterback, Brock Purdy, was the last pick of the NFL draft. They call that position Mr. Irrelevant. One NFL scouting report from the time dismissed Purdy as “not a very good athlete.” Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes was picked 10th. This is his fourth trip to the Super Bowl. You can’t turn on your television without him ambushing you in the commercials.

Between spots for State Farm, Head and Shoulders, Subway, Adidas and T-Mobile, Mahomes has been on your television 173,673 times over the past 30 days, according to one tracker. Brock Purdy is in a single Toyota ad, which has appeared only 180 times in the past month. His only previous sponsorship deal was with Alaska Airlines—the company where the door fell off the airplane.

As much as America loves popstar-athlete romances, we love an underdog story. The Kansas City Chiefs are now a dynasty. And it’s fun to root against a dynasty. It was infuriating but do you remember how much fun it was to root against the Brady-Belichick era Patriots? We haven’t had this dynamic since the beginning of the century; the sides are once again cleanly defined, and that’s nice. It’s certainly better than pretending to give a shit about Joe Burrow’s uninventive bad boy persona.

Chiefs Star Reveals How Taylor Swift Won Over Travis Kelce’s Teammates

I’m not willing to defend their missteps, but the NFL needs this. It’s been a rough few years for the league. A decade ago, the NFL settled its brain damage lawsuits for $765 million. In 2015, it had Deflategate. The next year, Colin Kaepernick took a knee and set everything on fire. It may have been the right thing to do, but Kaepernick’s protest didn’t help the image of the NFL on either side of the cultural wedge that was then slicing through the country.

Hell, the Taylor Swift Super Bowl is only 20 years removed from the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” Super Bowl. If you’re a millennial, those are now like bookend cultural landmarks.

That’s what we are witnessing in this most Super Bowl of Super Bowls. A cultural landmark that won’t soon be forgotten. So stop complaining and enjoy the show.

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