It would not shock those who know me to know that I am not a fan of America’s favourite sporting pastimes, or very many sporting pastimes for that matter. Every February, when scrolling through my newsfeed, I am bombarded by headline after headline, all addressing the most viewed sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl. However, it has always been an event I have seen as shrouded in mystery. This year I decided that this would be different, and that I would delve deep into the world of halftime shows, touchdowns, and foam fingers.
This was, however, not as simple as I had anticipated. The Super Bowl is a complex, multifaceted viewing experience. It possesses its own culture, which comes to life for one night every year. It raises questions of sport, party etiquette, food, and so much more. Its complex nature makes it a labyrinth of social interaction. The result of these issues is that it is an extremely inaccessible sporting experience when compared to the likes of the Champions League or Wimbledon, and this is particularly the case for a sports novice, such as myself.
The first task is to be invited to a Super Bowl viewing party. While not an essential, anyone hoping to leave the experience with a better understanding of American football would benefit from such an arrangement. One simply cannot pick up all the rules of an American football game without the generous assistance of an experienced spectator. However, this reliance on football fans raises questions totally outside of the context of the game itself. The first of which is how to choose a team to support.
While I am familiar with the names of teams within sports such as soccer and rugby, American football’s vernacular is a foreign language to me. It’s likely that those experiencing their first encounter with the sport will not have the requisite statistical knowledge or loyalty to a “franchise” to make a well-reasoned decision. This reduces the choice to a purely trivial matter. Does one select a team based on geographical location, the attractiveness of its players, or, as each game begins, by tossing a coin?
“I decided to view the game from a neutral standpoint, and was no more enthused as a result.”
Finding a team to support is a basic starting point when approaching any new sport. Having somebody to root for makes you invested and, in theory, enhances your enjoyment of the game. But it can be overwhelming when you are so unfamiliar with the available options. Not wanting to lock myself in as a lifelong fan of either team, I decided to view the game from a neutral standpoint, and was no more enthused as a result.
You might argue that this freedom allows the spectator to dive deep into the rules of the game, to gain a sort of dispassionate higher understanding. You might also be forgiven for thinking that from rugby, it’s only a small step up to American football, so how long could it take to get up to speed? Before you can even begin to appreciate the rules of the game, the pre-game and game-time food arrive to add more complexity.
The Super Bowl does not lend itself well to a pleasant culinary experience. At least not in Ireland, where the event begins in the late hours of Sunday night, lasting somewhere between three and four hours. If you’re like me and were expected to provide some form of sustenance for guests, the question is inevitably whether full meals are appropriate. This, on top of other pre-party questions, such as whether sporting attire is required for viewing, make the hours before the party almost as torturous as the ones during it.
Despite this, it is possible to persevere through these issues with the aid of blissful ignorance. At least, it is until one sees the teams line out, and the game begins. This is when the knowledgeable are separated from the first-timers. On the off chance that someone at the party fully understands the rules, they are likely the only one. One has to be ready to join the lengthy queue of inquisitive ignorants to ask their question, or simply elect to suffer in silence. In my case, I was isolated away from those scholars of America’s favorite pastime, left to wither away as these padded men threw the pigskin back and forth.
I decided to simply stay quiet. Hearing shouts of anger, bemusement, and sometimes shock, I monotonously nodded my head in agreement, or shook in faux-anger. This meant that for the first half of the game, I saw what can only be described as a brawl of men running into each other, throwing an extremely aerodynamic ball in various directions. However, even this spell of ignorance was short-lived, as I was soon found out by those knowledgeable viewers, recognising my confusion.
“It is clear that American football does not lend itself well to newcomers.”
I hadn’t even known where to start even if I wanted to understand. How does one ask for assistance in understanding a game so complex that they cannot even pinpoint its essential elements? It’s a kind of limbo, like being in a library without being able to read – the knowledge is there, you just can’t access it.
Another issue I ran into was the lack of chances to pause and interpret the match. It was suggested to focus simply on the scoring aspect of the game, which awards varying points for both touchdowns and field goals. Yet this is the most simplistic aspect of the game, and one which can’t satisfy the inquisitive spectator. The game is also, I learned, comprised of brief “plays”, which means if you are courageous enough to inquire as to the rules of the game, what is being explained to you is likely no longer on the screen while being explained.
An American Football game also does not lend itself well to understanding its players. The fact that I couldn’t align myself to any one team for a meaningful reason was worsened by the fact that the same issue naturally arose in relation to the game’s players. Which isn’t ideal when there are 90 of them involved in a single game.
On top of this, the American game has failed to transcend its geographical constraints, with most people only being familiar with the game’s greatest ever player, Tom Brady. This would be like the footballing world being aware of Lionel Messi, but oblivious to the greatness of the likes of Ronaldo. Yet this is definitely the case, and the spectator again is bombarded by an overly complex system of player rotation. They are simply not offered anything worth investing their interest in.
It is clear that American football does not lend itself well to newcomers. Consequently, a party such as that, which was thrust upon me, suffers. There is a clear divide between those who have experienced the game previously, and those who have not done the vast amount of homework required for an enjoyable match experience. A chasm opens, and people like myself are confined to the more trivial aspects of the game, while the others are heavily invested in the outcome of every single play.
One might argue that the game can be seen as secondary to its “viewing party”. It is simply complementary to the snacks, comradery, and fun. However, one has to wonder why these two cannot co-exist. I would argue that the complex nature of the sport makes it impossible to both take full enjoyment from the experience, and fully understand the game. By the time the confetti fell in the early hours of Monday morning, I was ready to call full-time on my Super Bowl experience.