The Super Bowl is the purest distillation of America that there is. It’s brutal, lucrative, tawdry, spectacular, amazing, and full of delicious snacks. It’s the one moment when we as a nation truly come together to reflect on our greatest achievements as a society — television, innovative chicken and cheese products, and over-the-top marketing. This year, there’s also going to be a damn fine football game on. This year we are also entering a bold new world in which the Super Bowl will no longer be associated with Roman numerals. It’s just Super Bowl 50.
But as the social pressure to watch a football game — or at least be in the presence of others who are watching — mounts, you may find yourself with some nagging questions. This is particularly true if you’re not a football fan but are bowing to social pressure and pretending to be one for the day. We have the answers.
1) What time is the Super Bowl?
The most important thing to know about the Super Bowl is the start time and date of the big matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, namely 6:35 pm Eastern time on Sunday, February 7.
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2) Where is the Super Bowl played?
Super Bowl 50 will be played at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, California. This stadium is the home of the San Francisco 49ers, but it’s actually quite far from downtown San Francisco in the northern suburbs of San Jose.
It’s extremely common for NFL teams’ home stadiums to be located outside the city limits of their namesake team, but the 49ers situation is extreme. Santa Clara isn’t just outside of San Francisco; it’s not even in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area, and a different team — the Oakland Raiders — plays substantially closer to San Francisco.
Plans are afoot to incorporate a small area of land around the stadium as a city named “San Francisco,” though this would of course not be the same city as the city and county of San Francisco that we all know.
For fans watching at home, none of this is relevant. But if you bought tickets to Super Bowl 50 and booked yourself a hotel room in San Francisco, you’re staying in the wrong city. Should have gone to San Jose, which is cheaper anyway.
3) Who is playing in the Super Bowl?
Each year, the Super Bowl pits the champions of the National Football Conference against the winner of the American Football Conference. Super Bowl 50 features the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.
The NFL playoffs’ single-elimination tournament structure sometimes allows real underdog teams into the Super Bowl, but not this year. The Panthers had the best regular season record in the NFC, and the Broncos were tied for best in the AFC. The Panthers were the best overall team this year, but both teams are very strong. We should be in for a good game.
4) Why are Super Bowl ads such a big deal?
Super Bowl ads are a big deal because they’re extraordinarily expensive — $5 million for a 30-second spot this year — and Super Bowl ads are extraordinarily expensive because of the intersection of two trends.
One is the tremendous popularity of professional football. Lots of people watch the game.
The other is the declining popularity of everything that isn’t live sports. The highest-rated non-Super Bowl broadcast of all time was the 1983 M.A.S.H. finale, which 60 percent of households watched. After that is a 1980 Dallas episode and the 1977 Roots finale. In the modern world, with audiences fragmented by cable television, distracted by the internet, and time shifting with DVR and on-demand services, it simply isn’t possible for anything other than live events to reach very large segments of the population. This makes the Super Bowl a unique marketing opportunity that commands a uniquely high price.
Because Super Bowl ads are so expensive, companies that buy them tend to take the opportunity to roll out signature ads and new campaigns, which heightens the attention paid to the advertisements.
Are the ads worth the money? A team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin’s Eau Claire campus has found some evidence that they may be. Films that are advertised during the Super Bowl see a 40 percent boost in ticket sales, and publicly traded companies that advertise during the game see their stock overperform the S&P 500 in the short term.
5) Does the winner get some kind of large bowl?
No. The winner gets the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. The origin of the Super Bowl name is somewhat tangled, but in brief:
Yale University’s football team has long played in a bowl-shaped arena known as the Yale Bowl (not to be confused with Yale Bowls, which sells actual bowls). In 1923, a similarly shaped arena was constructed in Pasadena, California, and dubbed the “Rose Bowl.” Pasadena had been the site of an important postseason college football match for about 20 years before the construction of the Rose Bowl, and once the new arena was complete the match became known by the same name as the arena. From there, the tradition of referring to postseason college football games as “bowls” spread.
Meanwhile, in 1920 a number of professional football teams banded together to form the National Football League. In 1960, a rival professional football league — the American Football League — was established. In 1966, the two leagues agreed to merge. The merger was not complete until 1970, but starting in 1967 the winner of the NFL championship tournament played the winner of the AFL championship tournament in a championship game.
Once the merger was finalized, pro football was reorganized so that the old NFL became the National Football Conference and the old AFL became the American FootballConference, and the whole thing combined was the National Football League.
The Super Bowl is played between the AFC champion and the NFC champion, and determines the overall league champion.
6) Whom should I root for in the Super Bowl?
Unlike last year when there was a clear and unequivocally correct answer, this year the question of whom to root for is fundamentally one of personal taste and style.
The basic contrast between the teams is personified by their quarterbacks.
The Denver Broncos are led by Peyton Manning, an old white guy who is both the greatest quarterbacks of all time and also not good anymore due to the aforementioned being old thing. The Broncos win with defense these days, and to an extent with the running game. But in terms of Manning’s legacy, it would be nice for him to win another ring. Certainly for those of us who are past-our-prime white men, this seems like an appealing scenario.
Conversely, the Panthers’ QB is Cam Newton, a much younger African American who is arguably the best quarterback in football right now. For those who believe in youth, vitality, and change, a Panthers win looks good.
By total coincidence, Manning and Newton also happen to be among the best actors currently working in the professional sports field. Here’s a good compilation of Manning’s recent work for Nationwide Insurance, and here’s an excellent Newton spot for the NFL’s “Play 60” campaign.
7) What are the rules of football?
Football has a lot of rules. But here are the basics:
- The game starts with a kickoff. After halftime, there is a kickoff. After any team scores, there is a kickoff. In a kickoff, one team kicks the ball to the other team, which catches it and tries to run it forward.
- When you have the ball, you get four tries (“downs”) to move the ball at least 10 yards forward to the “first down line” (helpfully marked in yellow on TV broadcasts). If you succeed, you have a first down. If you fail, the other team gets the ball at that location.
- In a standard play, the quarterback will either attempt to throw the ball down the field to a receiver or else hand the ball to a running back. There are a variety of unorthodox “trick plays” that can be attempted, but they are very risky and rarely used. The combination of rarity and risk makes these plays especially exciting.
- Typically, a team only makes three efforts to get a first down. On the fourth try, the normal strategy is to either try to kick a field goal or to punt (i.e., kick) the ball to the other team to make sure the opposition gets the ball further back. In a memorable paper, economist David Romer argues that teams kick way too often.
- If you manage to move the ball all the way to the end of the field, you score a touchdown worth six points. (You also get to dance, but “excessive celebration” will get you penalized.)
- After a touchdown, teams will normally try for a special extra-point kick — it’s essentially the same as kicking a field goal, but you only get one point. On some occasions, a team will instead attempt a two-point conversion in which you get a single chance to move the ball into the end zone and obtain two points for success.
- Outside the context of a touchdown, if you successfully kick the ball between the goal posts, that’s a field goal worth three points.
The complete rulebook is here if you happen to be very bored. Note that even very serious football fans often don’t fully understand all the different aspects of the rules, whose details change a bit from year to year within the basic framework.
8) Who will win the Super Bowl?
I don’t know. That’s why they play the games! But the current gambling consensus is in favor of the Panthers (who, after all, have a better record) — sportsbooks currently favor them to win by five points.