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At Large | What are the metaphysical lessons from Super Bowl LIV?

The NFL's annual showpiece shows the gravitational pull of major sports events remains unrivalled when correctly aligned.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | What are the metaphysical lessons from Super Bowl LIV?

In case you missed it, Super Bowl LIV took place last Sunday.

The National Football League's (NFL) season-ending jamboree has long been shorthand for a category of inescapably large sports happenings. It crowns the champions of the most popular sports league in the world’s richest country. It is unique as a one-off final among the US major leagues. It is also the product of a popular, TV kind of mass media, having first been played in 1967, yet its sheer size makes it ideally suited to the digital age.

Ratings this year saw a slight uptick in combined national linear audiences across Fox and Fox Deportes to a reasonable 102 million. Fox also recorded its highest ever digital streaming audience and the whole shebang drew 43.9 million interactions across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

What makes for a major event in the digital space can be more democratic and less predictable. Back in early 2016 – you can be forgiven for not remembering this, it has been a busy old period since then – a surprising number of people were engrossed in live coverage of a puddle. Plainly, these were simpler times.

That January a total of over half a million actual viewers tuned in to watch on streaming service Periscope as a body of water occupied space in the north-eastern English town of Newcastle. Highlights included people trying to get across the puddle without getting wet and people failing to get over the puddle without getting wet. Concurrent audiences topped 20,000 at their peak.

The live stream was created by idling staff at a local marketing agency called Drummond Central, who initially ran it to keep themselves amused before growing intrigued by how much interest it was getting. Brands like ASOS, PG Tips tea, Dominos Pizza, EA and bookmaker Paddy Power worked up bespoke social content for #DrummondPuddleWatch. Even the official UK social accounts for Star Wars and the British Museum got involved. 

‘What a puddle,’ wrote Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

What a puddle, indeed.

The local council soon drained it all away, no doubt fearing the joke was getting tired. But as daft as this whole exercise seemed, and in fact was, it was also an object lesson in the dynamics of attention in the digital age. The event itself was hardly the point; the shared enjoyment of it took on a life of its own.

Few companies have applied these ideas about community relevance and its draw on attention better than Epic Games, publisher of the multiplayer gaming and digital third space phenomenon that is Fortnite. Back in October, Epic announced the launch of a new season – a major content update – that would be marked by an in-game event called The End.

This turned out to be a giant implosion, which sucked up all the existing elements of the game in real time. All that was left, for 40 hours, was a black hole. Riot even deleted any previous social media posts and left only a link to streams of that on its accounts. And a huge chunk of Fortnite’s fanbase were drawn inexorably towards it – the whole episode generated over seven million concurrent live views across Twitter, YouTube and Twitch. The 1.7 million who watched together on Twitch actually set a platform record.

Yet in media, if not in astrophysics, there are phenomena with a greater gravitational pull than black holes. The Super Bowl is one of them, and the reason for that is the way that it aggregates attention. Whereas campaigns like Fortnite’s are effective in engaging massive existing audiences, the NFL’s showpiece offers a little bit of something for everyone: the game, the half-time show, the ads, the chance to take part in a national conversation.

That creates networks upon networks of coverage, proliferating into all kinds of national and international media. It also allows for different sets of opportunities that brands can embrace. The most warmly received bit of advertising creative for the Super Bowl LIV broadcast was a Bill Murray-starring, Groundhog Day-based spot for Jeep. The video was inspired by a quirk in the calendar that saw the game fall on 2nd February – which was Groundhog Day, as it will be again and again – but the traction it gained owed little to the NFL itself and plenty to the forensic coverage of Super Bowl advertising.

So even 54 years in, the Super Bowl keeps building mass and the draw that it has – to continue our hit-and-miss gravitational analogy – develops in turn. Anything and anyone dragged into its orbit brings a cumulative effect.     

As the world moves further into selective, on-demand media habits, these are the two factors to which promoters will be paying heed. On the one hand, personal attention will make its own way around digital channels, occasionally gathering into a swarm that can be hard to predict or control. On the other, events have a better chance of directing interest when they have physical scale and multi-faceted appeal.

The way that esports events are evolving is worth following in this respect. Millions of people experience esports digitally but the most prestigious finals take place in stadiums and arenas. There is a sense that curiosity should be repaid with significance. Training players to become more articulate advocates is a widely held priority. Meanwhile Riot Games, the publisher of leading esports title League of Legends, has developed an Olympic-style host city partnership model to try and maximise the potential of local assets.   

There is a risk in this environment that the most vaunted occasions will pull away from the rest, and rights holders have a right to feel daunted. It may be easy to go missing as the influence of the old media gatekeepers wanes. Still, if events can be created with the confidence that they are worth watching, fans can be convinced to have a look.