Press Veterans Size Up the Super Bowl

`Charter members' who have covered every contest discuss ticket prices, conservative play, overlong halftimes, and more

AMONG the 2,200 media people in this week's Super Bowl press corps is a handful who claim membership in a special club. They covered the first Super Bowl, played at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967, and will be in Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday to make it 27-for-27 - or XXVII for XXVII, in the parlance of the National Football League championship game.

The league honors this dwindling fraternity at five-year intervals, but its members meet every year on-site to talk over old times and renew friendships. "We take a picture," says the Boston Globe's Will McDonough, who doubles as an in-studio expert for NBC Sports. "It used to look like a class photograph. Now it looks like a basketball team picture."

Contacted by phone, Mr. McDonough and several other Super Bowl regulars shared their thoughts on what has become one of the most-watched sporting events in the world.

How has the Super Bowl changed over the years?

Larry Felser (Buffalo News): It's much more corporate. Nothing is done without the profit motive foremost in people's minds.

Does that have negative ramifications?

Jerry Green (Detroit News): I think so, because the regular person cannot get a ticket. The corporations buy them and pitch their tents and serve meatloaf on watercress.

Edwin Pope (Miami Herald): They've taken the game completely out of the hands of the fans. Several years ago, 52 percent of the tickets were held by corporations.

Felser: The ticket prices are ahead of regular inflation. It takes a quantum leap every year. Last year it was $150; now it's $175. It's an elitist game, an elitist event, but so are a lot of big sports events in the United States.

What memories do you have of the early years?

John Steadman (Baltimore Sun): The first year, there were empty seats in the Coliseum and I figured that if you couldn't sell seats in the football citadel of America to a championship game, I was dubious about its future. For some reason, I think the American public almost rebelled the first year. There was so much oversaturation on television. Both NBC and CBS carried the game. They promoted it to the point that you almost thought they might forget to kick off.

Green: Super Bowl III [in which Joe Namath's New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts] was the most important sporting event of the second half of the 20th century. It changed the course of pro football.

Will McDonough (Boston Globe): That game is my favorite memory. The National Football League looked down on the American Football League at that time [1969, the year before the leagues' merger], and the NFL writers looked down on the AFL writers. The Jets' victory was a great thrill for me, a great thrill for all the guys in the AFL. We were rooting as hard as we possibly could.

What about the two-week wait to play to the game? Is it too long?

McDonough: The players, of course, want to play right away. But the reason they have the two weeks is very sound: It's so people have time to make their travel reservations and hotel accommodations. The league never realized it was going to grab all this publicity in the two weeks, it just happened. It's much more organized this way, much better for the fans of the competing teams.

It's been said that conservatism kills the Super Bowl, that the game is often dull because teams play not to lose. Is there any truth to this?

Steadman: I think the teams tighten up because of the long lead-up to the game. The players get to reading everything and hearing everything, and it eventually occurs to them that the stakes are so high. It's not like they choke, but they kind of go into a shell. I don't think they play with true athletic freedom.

Green: I'm one who believes that the games haven't been all that lousy. Teams are taking more chances.

For the past 10 years that's been the case, because the coaches saw the other way wasn't working. [Washington coach] Joe Gibbs gambled on a fourth-and-one in Super Bowl XVII and John Riggins ran 43 yards for a touchdown. That was daring.

But there have been some pretty lopsided games, right?

Pope: The way I figure it, there have been only eight games that were competitive. The reason there are blowouts is that these guys are strung so tight that when something negative happens, the whole thing just blows up emotionally for them. How many times do you remember a team coming from behind to win? I can hardly remember any. Once one team gets hot and gets going, they're gone.

McDonough: People don't seem to understand. In baseball and other sports, the first game of the championship series may be a bummer, but they have as many as six more chances to have a couple of good games. With the Super Bowl, it's one day....

Have the extra-long halftime extravaganzas thrown the players out of sync?

McDonough: The players and coaches say the wait is interminable. Instead of the regular 15 to 17 minutes, it's been 45 minutes. I think that's why a lot of second halves have been flat. This year they're coming back out after 15 minutes.

From a writer's standpoint, which was your favorite Super Bowl?

Steadman: I think the best overall Super Bowl was in San Diego [in 1988]. The promotion of the game was done in extremely good taste. Strangely enough, I'd take Detroit as No. 2 [the first northern Super Bowl]. I never saw any group of people extend themselves like the folks in Detroit did. The host committees did everything but stand on their heads in offering hospitality, but not to the point that they smothered you.

Is the game more enjoyable or less enjoyable to cover now?

Green: Less enjoyable. People are straining to get stories; it's a mob scene - probably the worst example of pack journalism short of a presidential news conference.

Felser: When the Super Bowls first started, if you wanted to interview [Green Bay quarterback] Bart Starr, you went over to the team hotel, called Bart, and he'd tell you to come up to his room. You'd talk to him for maybe 20 minutes with two or three other guys. Today, the starting quarterbacks haven't had a one-on-one interview since they were in the third grade.

Why has the Super Bowl become such a mega-event with the American public?

McDonough: It's grown because the game is in the middle of the winter. It's a way for people to get together and have friends over to the house - for a little celebration. That's the unique thing about this game: It's the one event in America where people come together and have parties....

Would interest in the Super Bowl dry up without the betting that the game attracts?

Steadman: I think there are enough purists around who enjoy the game for what it is without the betting aspect. But I'm not naive enough to say that action doesn't increase the overall interest in the game. It's immense.

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