The Billion Dollar Game
Allen St. John
Anchor Books, 2009
Buy: Amazon US, Amazon UK

The Super Bowl is the largest sporting event of the year, a sprawling festival of hype and commercialism that expands to fill almost a fortnight. The game itself is often an afterthought, at least in the eyes of the media and the casual viewers who turn their attention to the NFL only for that game.

Allen St John, a former Wall Street Journal writer, attempts to provide an overview of everything that goes into making the game happen. He chooses as his subject a single game, Super Bowl XLII, in Phoenix, Arizona. This isn’t a book about the game on the field, which is mentioned only fleetingly at the beginning and end of the book. Instead, it’s about all the pieces that come together to make the game.

St John looks at the building of the stadium, which was constructed with a Super Bowl bid in mind, the security around the event, the advertising, the difficulty of getting a ticket, the TV broadcast and more.

There are two pre-requisites for making this kind of book a success: first, the attention to detail that combines the history and the statistics about each element of the Super Bowl ecosystem; and second, access to the people who are making it all happen. St. John certainly has the journalistic ability to make the first part happen but he doesn’t always have the contacts to bring off the second.

So, for example, there’s a chapter about the halftime show, with plenty of anecdotes about previous years. The differences in negotiating with the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, for example. However, after mentioning that Tom Petty, who performed the halftime show at Super Bowl XLII, was a late addition, we hear little more until St John mentions the halftime show, in passing, at the end of the book.

There are undoubtedly lots of fascinating procedures involved in putting together a halftime show and making it run to a precise schedule. How is it all rehearsed? How involved was Petty? Did it all go to plan on the night or were there unseen hurdles that the fans never knew about? And so on. It’s impossible to say because St John doesn’t know.

In contrast, we get exhaustive detail about the planning and preparation for the Playboy Super Bowl party. It’s an event that attracts media and celebrities but it’s only tangential to the big game and barely merits a chapter. However, St John has access to the organisers and therefore we get what feels like a third of the book devoted to a sideshow.

Where he’s more successful – and interesting – is in his coverage of the preparations of the TV crew. He has access to the announcers, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, as well as to the director and other prominent figures. That leads to a thorough explanation of how a TV crew prepares for the big game, including the difficulties they run into during the NFC Championship game, that works as a thread running through the book.

There is a great book to be written about how a modern Super Bowl is planned and executed and Allen St John has the bones here. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough meat to go on them. Even at 250-odd pages, this feels stretched. One for completists only.

Photo: Ken Lund

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