The 13 blocks of Super Bowl Boulevard – the closed-off expanse of Broadway that traverses the cacophonous canyon of Times Square – has done more than simply transform a slice of Midtown Manhattan into a boisterous football carnival.
It has turned New York City’s famed Theater District into something approaching a fantasy.
In many ways, this week's completely over-the-top Super Bowl festivities have brought a jarring heartland nostalgia to this globally famous thoroughfare, known more for its show tunes, glitzy capitalism, and high-rise offices for high-brow literati and magazine moguls.
Tailgating? This week, the word doesn't evoke the sound of angry horns and expletives, and for New Yorkers, there is something at once transfixing and unsettling to the National Football League's attempt to annex a part of their city into its fabulous über-entertainment dreamscape.
Thirty-fourth Street is the site of the famous holiday miracle and the terminus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, right? This week it is the beginning of Super Bowl Boulevard. Farther uptown at 47th Street, a mid-square statue of George Cohan, the composer and playwright of “Give my regards to Broadway” fame, looks down at the other end of this week’s celebration of America’s sporting obsession.
Just a slot pass down from Mr. Cohan's statue, at the “NFL Extra Points Kicks” on 46th Street, mostly middle-aged men in rumpled coats and sweatshirts, many emblazoned in Denver orange or Seahawk green and blue, wait in a long line to boot a fluorescent football through the uprights.
“Aye! Niners’ Nation!” a New York City cop yells to a heavy, bearded man sporting a plastic Seahawk beak over his knitted cap, and who is about to attempt his kick. The man looks up and grins: “Hey! Get a job!” He flubs the extra point, however, and the cop continues to bust his chops, New York style. “That’s gonna happen Sunday, too, buddy!”
Indeed, there may never have been so many wide-eyed grins and smiles on Broadway, as tens of thousands of tourists and regional visitors take in sights such as the glass-encased Lombardi Trophy on display on 44th Street, which will be awarded to the Super Bowl champion on Sunday.
There’s a curious excitement, too, about the so-called Toboggan Run at 40th Street, the Boulevard’s 60-foot tall, 180-foot long centerpiece attraction. No, there aren’t any toboggans. It’s simply an undulating slide – the same kind that was a staple of amusement parks in the 1970s, when revelers would zip down the plastic slopes on burlap sacks.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” says a wide-grinned Herfect Garcia, a teen from the Bronx hawking $50 double-decker bus tours for Skyline Sightseeing at 34th Street. “It’s cold out here, man, but it’s so fun. I’m meeting a lot people from all over the place. But I want to get me on that slide!”
Mr. Garcia says this surrounded by epic HD billboards looming over him (some more than three times the size of the gleaming plastic slide), a dizzying array of barely clad lingerie models, and David Beckham underwear ads nearly outshining the erumpent sun.
But as Times Square and Broadway are transformed to pay homage to the way outdoor football is played in places like Green Bay or Denver, there are still plenty of grim-faced office occupants, the sharply dressed cadre of Midtown managers and publishing execs, looking grumpy as they bob and weave through the traffic of lumpy NFL-licensed caps and coats.
“‘I'll meet you at the corner of 42nd and Superbowl Blvd.,’ said no real New Yorker, ever,” tweeted Howard Greenstein, a social media strategist and president of the Harbrooke Group in Manhattan.
Harried delivery boys, too, cutting and juking through the Super Bowl masses as deftly as Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, glance down nervously at the addresses stapled to the bags of Thai food or corned beef on rye that they’re bringing to the workaholics staying at their Midtown desks.
But the football fantasy continues at the Bridgestone Tire tent down on 36th Street, where guests can simulate a mid-air leap to the endzone, and pay for a photo of the score. A big bin of blue foam cubes sits under the endzone backdrop, and for some reason, the vast majority in line in this tent are middle-aged women.
“I’m having a lot more fun here than I would spending a hundred bucks on a Broadway show!” says a woman named Jenn, a white Denver Broncos Peyton Manning jersey beneath her coat.
Still, in some ways, it’s fitting that the first cold-weather Super Bowl is giving its regards to Broadway. (True, it’s technically in New Jersey, but the transformed Boulevard really wouldn’t work in Weehawken, would it?)
Football just may be contemporary Americana at its purest now, its marriage with television having long ago replaced baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie as the defining image of American leisure and passion – even if the heartland carnival traditions live on. Indeed, what better place to wax nostalgic with a Super Bowl winter tradition than in the global media capital of a media-obsessed world?
Still, the cold-weather super Sunday is just a New York experiment for now.
“I think this is obviously innovative and it's something new, but it's also unique because it's New York," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in an interview at the 92nd Street YMCA in Manhattan earlier this month. “Every city can't host a Super Bowl just because of the sheer enormity of this event. And it's not just a football game. We have a week full of events, we probably have well over 150,000 coming in to the New York region for this event.”
“Will we look at other Super Bowls in cold-weather sites?” he continued. “I think we'll wait and make that evaluation later.”