I enjoy the spectacle of the Super Bowl, mostly the rituals around it: chili, wings, guacamole and beer; the splashy commercials; the halftime show (sometimes); and the chance to win a buck or two from boxes in a grid. Rarely does the game itself live up to the build-up, though. This past Sunday’s game was, well, one of the lousiest Super Bowls I can recall. Not only was it a lopsided game: My team lost, and so did my boxes.
But even when the game itself comes up short, there are redeeming things about the Super Bowl, which has achieved near holiday status in the U.S. — and, apparently, even in the rest of the world where football means something else entirely.
Super Bowl Sunday is likely the only time that people pay as much attention to the commercials as they do to the game. Some 96.4 million people watched the game on Feb 7, and that’s just in the U.S. And though that’s the lowest number since 2007, Toyota, T-Mobile, State Farm and GM were among the eager advertisers that ponied up some $5.6 million for a 30-second spot to reach those 192 million eyeballs. Thanks to the internet, Super Bowl commercials live on far beyond their Super Bowl moment. I’ve sneaked a re-peek into the DoorDash Sesame Street commercial a few times since Sunday to get another listen to Daveed Diggs’ gorgeous voice.
Tech companies get it. Apple famously launched the Mac during a Super Bowl commercial in 1984, back when it was called the Macintosh. In 2014, Sonos used color to represent music flowing into different rooms in a commercial for its wireless multiroom music products. Mophie ran an ad depicting global disasters tied to a dying cell phone battery as a pitch for its battery packs six years ago. This year, Alexa morphed into hunky Michael B. Jordan in an Amazon ad.
The Super Bowl has also been the launching pad for broadcast technology. The first major sports event broadcast in HD was the 2000 Super Bowl on ABC. I had a Super Bowl party that year, and secured — very carefully and temporarily — a $25,000 42-inch Runco plasma TV for the event to write up for a tech column. My rear-projection analog TV was in the living room. The plasma HD was in the basement. My guests were seeing HD for the first time and most were stunned by the crisp images and vibrant colors.
But the experience was far from perfect. ABC only had a couple of HD cameras so the views were limited, and a JV broadcast crew announced the game for the alternate HD feed. I can still hear a friend demand, “Where is Phil Simms?” Yeah, yeah… the picture was nice, but she wanted the play-by-play she was used to. That’s the thing about cutting-edge tech. You have to endure growing pains.
This year, Verizon had the tech spotlight, using the wider bandwidth of 5G cellular networks to deliver special features to the 25,000 fans attending the game in person at Raymond James Stadium along with iPhone 12 and select Samsung 5G phone owners viewing at home.
In a press release the Monday before the game, the wireless carrier bragged about a Fortnite activation for fans attending the game, the $80 million it pumped into the Tampa area for 5G deployments and the ability for fans to watch the game in a “co-viewing experience” with friends via the Yahoo Sports app. The perk that intrigued me most was the chance to select different camera angles from my phone.
I dutifully downloaded the Verizon 5G SuperStadium in the NFL mobile app the morning of the game. I opted into alerts so I wouldn’t miss anything that CBS, Verizon or the NFL wanted me to know. At 6:30 p.m., I got a text on my watch alerting me to kickoff, so I grabbed a Heineken, Doritos and guac and settled in.
I pulled up the app and saw that if I wanted, I could watch the game free via the app. That was a nice nod to cord-cutters, I thought, but who, really, would want to watch a football game on a window inside a 6.7-inch screen? When I clicked the camera angle tab to see which of the five options I’d pick first, it was ruh-roh. The camera feeds — and the main feed of the live game on the app — weren’t in sync with my TV.
At first the app was way behind. CBS had cut to a commercial by the time the app finished with the coin toss. Then the app locked up. When I closed out and opened the app again, it was ahead of the TV by about 10 seconds. It wasn’t fun at all to try to watch a different — and miniature — camera angle knowing that I’d see the play again in a few seconds on the big screen.
So the camera angles were dead to me from the start. I wondered how it was working with people trying to watch the game together via the Yahoo app. In the past I’ve tried watching a baseball game with a friend only to have the friend cheer or curse a few seconds before I knew what’s going on. That wasn’t fun, either.
In the second half, after I started losing interest in the game, I played with the camera angles a little more. I discovered wide receivers and their defensive shadows don’t do a lot when they’re not involved in a particular play. Sometimes the cameras went in way too close; on fast-motion scenes, that made me a little seasick.
The one thing I really wanted to do — have instant replay on demand — wasn’t available. I wanted to watch the goal-line stand of the Chiefs in Q2 — one of their few highlights of the day — but the app wouldn’t do that.
Other weird tech things happened during the game. The app wanted access to my phone’s camera, which I refused. Why does the NFL want access to my camera, I wondered? When I observed, “Nice tackle,” at one point, Alexa piped up, saying something that sounded like “Pringle.” I said her name sternly since I hadn’t summoned her, and she said, “That’s nice of you to say.”
Another Super Bowl, another tech project in the books. Even the best tech couldn’t have saved this game. No instant replay necessary.