Saturday, January 28, 2006

Everyone's so cold to Detroit

It's got a roof. What's your beef?In January 1992, during the run-up to Super Bowl XXVI, Newsweek magazine ran a small item about things for visitors to do in the host city, Minneapolis. If you can deal with the cold, the piece said, "this is a really happening town." As a Minneapolis native, I appreciated that someone was making an effort to find something positive to say about my hometown, rather than just pissing and moaning about the weather for two solid weeks. Others weren't too keen on the idea of a Midwestern Super Bowl, even indoors, and in the years since that game, the NFL title game hasn't been played any farther north than Pasadena, California. That's about to change.

Super Bowl XL will be staged next Sunday at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, Michigan. Take a wild guess what they're saying about the NFL's choice of a game site. By "they," of course, I mean those people traveling to Detroit for the festivities, as opposed to the tens of millions of us who will watch the game on television and thoroughly enjoy it, except for the halftime show, which this year consists of senior citizens wiggling their asses. I think the commentary on ESPN Radio this afternoon summed up the prevailing attitude quite nicely. The host announced he was going to talk about the Super Bowl, then began his riff with "Nothing against Detroit, but ..." and it was immediately obvious where he was headed. Because when a sentence starts "Nothing against X," it's a clear signal that the speaker despises X and is about to rip it to pieces. Sort of like the way the phrase "It's not about the money" means we're going to talk about money. Anyway, the ESPN host continued (and I'm paraphrasing here, because I don't speak Blowhard): "... but what on Earth is the league doing putting its marquee event in Detroit? Super Bowls are meant to be played in warm-weather cities." He then concluded with, "Blah blah blah-blah, blah blah blah." I'm paraphrasing there, too.

What's really frustrating about dealing with "slow" people is that they can't grasp simple concepts. Let's start with the matter of why (on Earth) the Super Bowl is being held in Detroit. This is the kind of low-rent-Seinfeld rhetorical question you hear on talk radio all the time. It's supposed to be thought-provoking -- and I suppose it is, if you're having trouble coming up with your own thoughts. But if you know anything about the way the league operates in the 21st century, it just insults your intelligence. The answer is no big mystery, and anyone who considers himself qualified to bloviate about the matter on sports radio ought to know it.

To grease the wheels of stadium construction, the NFL will often promise a city that if it commits public money to a new facility, it will be rewarded with a Super Bowl. It isn't just Detroit. The NFL has told Kansas City that if it puts a retractable roof on Arrowhead Stadium, it will get a Super Bowl sometime before 2021. Last year, when the Jets were battling for a plot of land on which to build a new stadium in Manhattan, the league tentatively awarded the 2010 Super Bowl to New York to try to tip the scales in the Jets' favor. (That stadium project died for good alongside New York's bid for the 2012 Olympics, so Super Bowl XLIV will be played instead in Miami.) Super Bowl XL is being held in Detroit because having the game there helped the Lions get a new stadium. Was that so complicated? Apparently.

Just for the sake of argument, let's say Detroit hadn't built a new stadium, and yet the league somehow lost its mind and awarded the game to the Motor City anyway. Super Bowl XL would then be played in the junky, funky old Pontiac Silverdome. What would it say about the NFL to have its marquee event staged in such an aging tractor-pull venue? Eh, next to nothing, actually. It's the Super Bowl. They could play it in Anchorage, and it would sell out. Hell, it wouldn't have to sell out, because for the NFL, the numbers that really count aren't the gate receipts; they're the TV ratings. Nielsen estimates that about 90 million people in the United States alone will be watching the Super Bowl on TV. A relative handful, about 70,000 will be watching it live at Ford Field. If Detroit sucks, well, too bad for those people. The rest of us will be watching from home, or sports bars, or prison, or wherever. We couldn't care less where the game's being played. When the site of the game matters to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the audience, it's safe to say the location is irrelevant. They could play it in Anchorage, and we'd still watch. The highest-rated NFL game of all time was Super Bowl XVI, between the 49ers and Bengals. Where was it played? The Pontiac Silverdome.

If having the game in Detroit makes economic sense for the league (if not the host city, but that's another matter) and makes no difference to the fans at home, what's all the fuss about the Super Bowl not being held in a warm-weather city? Consider who goes to the game. It's not your garden-variety fans. It's the people who rent the luxury boxes. It's the people with season tickets for club seats. It's the VP of marketing for one of the league's strategic partners. It's the year's No. 1 salesman among Central Kansas Lincoln/Mercury dealers. It's the star of the new sitcom who's been strategically placed so the network can identify her and put up a promo. And it's guys with radio shows who set up at the media center and broadcast live from there two hours a day.

If I were one of those people, I'd much rather spend the first week of February in Miami or Tampa or San Diego than in Detroit. And if I felt I'd been cheated out of a week of sun and sand, I'd probably grouse about it on my radio program -- or, if I didn't have a radio program, I'd grouse about it to someone who did. And because I wouldn't want to sound selfish or petulant, I'd emphasize that this is about how the Super Bowl is "meant to be played," rather than how I'd prefer to watch it be played. I'd be careful to fret over the damage the league is risking to its reputation, rather than the suntan I'm not going to get. I'd pretend that I'm really just concerned about what's best for the NFL, or for the players, or for the fans, rather than what's best for me me me.

UPDATE, Sunday, Jan. 29: No, I don't have a particular axe to grind with ESPN Radio. It's just what we get here in D.C. In fact, I want to praise the network's Doug Gottlieb. This morning, Gottlieb was doing a bit about how the Super Bowl is better on TV than in person. He could easily have turned it into a 10-minute diss on Detroit, but he didn't. He just shrugged and said, "It's a cold weather city. It is what it is." His one cheap shot -- saying Super Bowl tourists like to see the sights, but in downtown Detroit "the sights are all outlined in chalk." -- was legitimately funny.

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