Staff Writer

The Super Bowl isn’t just the Super Bowl.

It has taken on “a life of its own far beyond the actual playing of the game,” said Jennifer Walton, professor of communications at Ohio Northern University, who studies “the cultural relevance” of things like the Super Bowl.

There are the commercials, and the halftime show, and the parties. In a sense, “This is something that is becoming a secular holiday,” Walton said.

It wasn’t always this way.

Walton said when the Super Bowl started, few people attended and there wasn’t much interest. The championship game between the National Football League and its then-rival, the American Football League, wasn’t taken seriously because the AFL was regarded as more minor league.

Then in 1969, the New York Jets, an upstart team, beat the establishment Baltimore Colts.

“An underdog won,” Walton said. “And we love underdog stories.”

The next year the AFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, won again, defeating the Minnesota Vikings. Walton said people began to realize “This is serious. This is real.”

Walton said 98 million people watched the game last year. Very few of these have “a stake” in either team — after all, fans in Ohio might not be particularly obsessed with the Chiefs or the San Francisco 49ers, who will play in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday.

But it’s been 50 years since Kansas City won, cementing the Super Bowl as a real event, and “this is their first return in 50 years.” And San Francisco, although they have had a rough decade, “were a powerhouse” in the 1980s.

Walton is rooting for Kansas City. She predicts they will win, 50 years after they turned the Super Bowl into what it is.

And it was the then-owner of the Kansas City team that suggested the name “Super Bowl,” she said, naming it after his children’s favorite toy, a “Super Ball.”

Walton said a Super Bowl party is “something for us to look forward to” in the cold, “dreary” Midwestern winter. “And there’s something for everyone,” as some people come for the game, some to watch the commercials and others to watch halftime.

A Super Bowl party is a chance to spend time with friends, not family, and you don’t have to pretend to like “awkward gifts,” she said.

And there are snacks. Walton said leading up to the game you see news coverage about how to go to Super Bowl parties with different dietary restrictions, such as if you are following a keto or a vegan diet.

“More and more, you’re seeing very fancy food,” Walton said. It’s not just chips and salsa, but big gourmet sandwiches, or fancy meatballs. For people who love to cook and to entertain, “this is an event.” And you can try a new recipe knowing that, if it fails, other people are bringing food so you’ll have something to fall back on. By contrast, “if you screw up the Thanksgiving turkey, that’s traumatic.”

In recent years, there has also been more of an interest in “fancy Super Bowl cocktails,” she said. This year’s cocktails will be related to the two cities of the teams that are playing, San Francisco and Kansas City.

Walton, although interested in the Super Bowl phenomenon, said she isn’t much of a football fan. Originally from Indiana, she “moved here not even knowing Ohio State was a thing.” She quickly learned when she was invited to a tailgate party.

In addition to the days leading up to the game, football fans can enjoy eight hours of pregame coverage the day of the game. Commentators and former players give their analysis on what they think might happen. And there’s a group of guys who have been to every Super Bowl since the very first one, and they typically are interviewed, Walton said.

Football is played in a lot of locations, but, in the Midwest, “it becomes a religion.” Walton said just as in New England and Canada, where people are focused on hockey, Midwesterners are passionate about football. She said one reason why that may be, in Ohio and nearby states, when it is football season you pretty much want to be inside, curled up in a blanket, watching television.

And she said the time of year plays a role in the Super Bowl, too. After the holidays, we are all “basically trying to detox” from too much food, travel and family obligations. Then comes the Super Bowl.

Walton said a lot of companies spend almost their entire advertising budget on one 30-second ad that runs during the Super Bowl. And they get the biggest stars they can, she said, mentioning a Snickers ad that featured Betty White. Some ads are funny and some are touching. “Those Clydesdales make me tear up every time,” she said.

And halftime is exciting because “You don’t know what’s going to happen.” She said everyone wants a medley of greatest hits, and dance numbers, and often there is a surprise guest. Super Bowl halftime shows have attracted big names like Beyonce and the Rolling Stones.

This year, halftime will be co-headlined by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.

Among the Super Bowl coverage, television viewers can also watch the Puppy Bowl, an Animal Planet program in which puppies from animal shelters play inside a model stadium.

“They’ve even gotten puppies involved,” Walton said.

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