FOR some lonely souls, the biggest event of this week is the inauguration of a new American president. But more people than voted for George Bush and Michael Dukakis combined will gather around the television set Sunday afternoon for the most-watched American event: the Superbowl.
From family rooms to hotel lobbies, a US audience of mythical proportions - NBC estimates about 125 million - will tune in to Super Bowl XXIII - an audience likely to be the biggest group of Americans watching anything at one time during the year.
Even for those glibly unconcerned with the destinies of the Cincinnati Bengals or the San Francisco Forty-Niners, the Super Bowl is a major cultural celebration.
According to communications experts, the Super Bowl provides a sense of community and even, tucked in the chatty between-plays commentary, of shared values. Listen for the stories of character and heroism in how players have fought back from adversity, dealt with defeat, or show winning attitudes.
The Super Bowl is something else, too - a gold mine like no other.
Just for serving as backdrop to the game, the host city of Miami will earn at least $100 million for the local economy and gain publicity that it values far more.
Advertisers are paying $675,000 for each half-minute of airtime during the game. No half-minute of network time has ever cost so much.
This money buys advertisers exposure to more people in one pounce - two thirds of them men - than is possible anywhere else. It also buys them an identification with the Super Bowl, the nation's most popular cultural event. The Anheuser-Busch brewing company is spending about $5 million promoting its beers during the game, and Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke are each spending even more.
Americans' enthusiasm for the Super Bowl is probably overmatched by that of Europe and Latin America for soccer's World Cup matches. And in Commonwealth countries, test matches in cricket can shut down daily life.
For the football fan, the Super Bowl is the ultimate game of six months of professional football. But Super Bowl audiences outmatch typical NFL game audiences by a factor of 10, notes Everett Rogers, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications.
``TV hype plays a very big role'' in making the Super Bowl what it is, he says. ``Media attention steers us to believe that this is a very big event and that who wins is important.'' However, Dr. Rogers says there is nothing wrong with that. ``One of the functions of a media event is that it gives a feeling of community to a very large audience.''
The Super Bowl, adds Eric Rothenbuhler, assistant professor of communications at the University of Iowa, provides people a reason to socialize and something to talk about at work the next day. ``But in a bigger way, it's a rehearsal of values,'' he observes.
The symbolic aspect of the Super Bowl is part of what makes it a valuable vehicle for advertising. Charles Atkin, a communications professor from Michigan State University, notes that the Super Bowl in recent years has been the pinnacle not only of football but of beer ads. ``Some of the aura of the Super Bowl rubs off on the product. It establishes beer as a legitimate part of society ... acceptable, appropriate.'' Dr. Atkin just finished serving on the Surgeon General's panel on advertising and alcohol.
For Miami, the Super Bowl is a mother lode of money and publicity. About 100,000 visitors are expected for the Super Bowl, but only about two-thirds of them will have tickets for the game itself.
At last year's Super Bowl in San Diego, tourists spent $65 million during the three or four days they spent in town. The added wages and circulation of dollars spent, subtracting for what the Super Bowl cost, pumped $136 million into San Diego county, says Michael Casinelli, vice-president of CIC Research, which studied the impact.
Miami organizers are looking for a similar effect. But Charles Scurr, president of Miami's host committee for the game, notes, ``the real economic impact is long-term.''
Miami's boosters badly want to make an impression on the 28 NFL owners, the 2,500 visiting journalists, and the tourists that the city is, in Mr. Scurr's words, ``a wonderful place to live and work.'' Part of the game's appeal is that the Super Bowl tourist is an influential decisionmaker.
The last time Miami hosted the big game in 1979, it botched the job.
NFL organizers found commitments, such as for transportation to the stadium, were not honored, says Jim Steeg, NFL director of special events. Worse, visitors found themselves gouged by hotels and restaurants looking to make big profits.
Local leaders this year have gone to great lengths to keep prices reasonable through voluntary associations.
Unfortunately for the city, two events are unlikely to escape many visitors' notice: a wave of Nicaraguan refugees arriving ahead of them, and rioting this week in a black neighborhood near downtown.