From bat and ball to Super Bowl: An Indian's date with America's biggest sporting extravaganza

An Indian student in New York gets a taste of the NFL Super Bowl LIII between New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams.

Supporters watching the Super Bowl LIII in a pub in New York.   -  SILADITYA RAY

As a cricket-mad kid who grew up in India, seeing hoards of people hunch around televisions during big games isn’t an alien experience. While the context of any major sporting contest may be the exhibition of skills and test of prowess, the thing that makes a big game, ‘big’ is the sheer volume of eyeballs watching it.

American sporting leagues have always been more than a passing curiosity for me. I loved watching the odd New York Yankee’s baseball game or LA Lakers' basketball game on ESPN, American Football was just too complex for me to follow. That, however, wasn’t going to stop me from engaging for the first time in the most sacred of American sporting traditions; watching a Super Bowl game with a bunch of Football mad New Yorkers. After finding out that a local pub in the city’s Upper West Side was hosting a viewing party, my plans for Sunday night were set.

It’s gameday.

Minutes before the year’s biggest game kicked off, I was staring at a row of big screens still pretty unsure about the rules of the sport. My only primer, embarrassingly, was a few games of Madden on my Xbox gaming console. But hey, I could play along, right? This is New York, home of the NY Giants, so obviously, my job would be to boo the New England Patriots, right? Nope. When you are a team as dominant as the Patriots (five Super Bowl championships, all since the turn of this century) you make fans all over the world.

Rex Burkhead #34 of the New England Patriots carries the ball against Marcus Peters #22 of the Los Angeles Rams in the second half. PHOTO: AFP

 

I was sharing a table with a bunch of guys who were tired of watching the Patriots dynasty dominate and were there to watch them lose. Go Rams! The guys, fellow Columbia scholars, were longtime football fans and were very willing to guide me through what was happening. Few things immediately stood out to me, football isn’t simply about big muscular dudes charging forward and tackling each other. There was a degree of complex tactical nous that makes the coach a critical component of the game. Plays are drawn out on notepads, relentlessly choreographed to the millimetre in practice and then performed on the grand stage; all while another tactically aware group of men is looking to thwart you.

Each quarter was interspersed with multiple breaks, and just like cricket, this meant the advertisers had a chance to hawk their products in front of millions. But ads on Super Bowl day aren’t just any ordinary ads, each of them is like a mini-premiere of some of the most elaborate TV shots I have ever seen. There was a Bud-Light/Game of Thrones commercial with dragons and a knight that might have had the budget of a mid-level Hollywood movie. SuperBowl ads serve as a statement of intent and multiple global brands like Google, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Verizon and even the Washington Post were showcased.

Back to the game, the score was still 0-0 at the end of the first quarter. This was a bit odd as I thought that the whole reason Americans disliked European Football (they call it soccer of course) was for its low scoring nature. Where were the touchdowns I was so looking forward to? I was told that the nuances of the Patriots’ defence were beyond my comprehension, I nodded and kept watching. Patriots were now on the offence and Tom Brady was on the field.

Who’s Tom Brady you ask?

The closest analogue I can provide is that he is kind of an American Virat Kohli. Brady, like Kohli, is not universally revered or worshipped in the same way Sachin Tendulkar or Michael Jordan were. But everyone who watches him unquestionably admires his superhuman ability. Brady’s championship pedigree is unmatched in the sport of football. Before he arrived on the scene in the year 2000, Patriots had appeared in the Super Bowl only twice, since then they have made the decider nine more times. Before Brady, the Patriots hadn’t won a single title. Since 2000, they had won it five times and were looking for their sixth championship. Another similarity Brady shares with India’s temperamental genius is that he’s one half of a power couple, being married to supermodel and actress Gisele Bündchen, who was an animated presence in the crowd.

Brady, who is the team’s Quarterback, the man who passes forward and leads the offence brought an electric presence to the game. The Patriots were now gaining yards and charging forward. Unfortunately, there was no touchdown but a field goal meant Patriots went up 3-0. That’s how the score would remain until the end of the first half.

Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady has won won six NFL championships. PHOTO: AFP

 

Now it was time for one of the most unique sporting traditions, the Super Bowl Half Time show. The fact that it was headlined by Adam Levine’s Maroon 5 had been the subject of some lampooning. The half time show is generally reserved for the hottest musical acts in the country and has previously seen the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Aerosmith, Beyonce among many others. Adam Levine and Maroon 5, who tried really hard, were a definite step down. But the show was a spectacle nonetheless.

Midway through the game, the pitch was transformed into an elaborate concert venue with a massive stage, lights, pyrotechnics and fans on the actual pitch next to the performers. How they put this together and dismantled it in a few minutes without damaging the playing surface is beyond my comprehension. When you pay for a Super Bowl ticket which costs around $3000 on average, you get to see both the year’s biggest game and the most talked about music concert.

Back after half time, the game continues to chug along. Still, no touchdowns and the Rams equalise with a field goal that narrowly goes in from over 50 yards. I am told this is on track to be the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. Such rotten luck. The game keeps crawling along and we are tied 3-3 with one quarter left.

There is no more talk of nuanced defence. People now want to see some scoring, pining for a touchdown. Inevitably, the discussion veers away from the game at hand as new SuperBowl ads continue to play with barely any repetition, the thing that makes ads during IPL season so irritating. The sport as a whole is at an interesting crossroad as it has been hamstrung by some controversy in the past few years. The key one is the use of the nation’s most popular sport by some as a platform to speak out against social injustices, specifically the poor treatment of African American men by the law enforcement. The boldest form of protest involved players kneeling during the national anthem. This is something that has angered some including the President Donald Trump while also drawing praise from others. The Super Bowl ads did have a tinge of political colour to them. While one ad spoke about supporting first responders like police officers probably knocking the kneelers, another ad by the Washington Post firmly took aim at Trump’s angry rhetoric. The Super Bowl isn’t just a game, it is a stage in the world’s most media-savvy democracy.

Maroon 5's lead vocalist Adam Levine performing during the half time show. PHOTO: AFP

Back to the game, and, suddenly, amidst bored conversations, the Patriots pull off a masterful offensive manoeuvre and we have our first touchdown (six points) followed by a point kick into the back of the net. The Patriots now lead 10-3 and then extend that lead with another three point field goal. 13-3 the scoreline holds until the final whistle and with that, the Patriot dynasty continues its reign. Brady and his Patriots are the first ever six-time champions and most of the pub (other than my table) erupts with joy.

I am told by seasoned fans that this was probably the most boring Super Bowl in years and if I’m being honest the game itself felt very anti-climatic. But, the overall Super Bowl experience was amazing; having someone you just met pick up your bar tab was a fantastic induction into a great American tradition. Regardless of where I am next year, I plan to keep this thing going as the Super Bowl isn’t really about the game itself; rather it is a chance to bask in the pure love of sport.