Allen St. John: The Billion Dollar Game

Perhaps it's no surprise that Allen St. John, the former sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal, would eventually turn his attention to one of the single most fascinating hybrids of sport and modern business -- the outsized mash-up of competition and commerce that is the Super Bowl itself. As the capstone of the pro football season, it brings to a climax the annual test of prowess between teams and players; but as an event it also stands outside of even the NFL's ordinary level of televised spectacle -- somewhere between a national holiday and a marketer's moment of truth. In his new book, The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day in American Sport - Super Bowl Sunday, St. John follows the yearlong preparation for the big game -- learning how the commercials are made and selected, how the halftime extravaganza is staged, how cities vie for hosting privileges, how the game's "party atmosphere" is carefully manufactured, and how the state of Arizona is banking on the two-and-half-year-old University of Phoenix Stadium hosting the Super Bowl every few years.

The author recently took a few minutes to answer some questions via email about the upcoming Super Sunday (taking place on February 1 in Tampa and pitting the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals), writing under pressure, and the painful responsibility of attending a Playboy party during Super Bowl week. -- Mark J. Miller

B&N Review: Arizona has long been a franchise with a lack of fan support. How much does just going to the Super Bowl affect the team's future?

Allen St. John: With Arizona, I think it will make a huge difference in the way that the franchise is perceived, both nationally and in Arizona. They've given their fans very, very few reasons to celebrate over the last 50 years. For them, playing in the Super Bowl represents a huge opportunity for the team to change its image. And I would argue that the University of Phoenix Stadium had something to do with the team's Super Bowl run by giving the franchise a goal to become a contender while there's still buzz about the new building. So I think that -- the economy permitting -- they'll do very well in terms of ticket sales next year. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has been in the Super Bowl many times before, but the fans aren't jaded at all. Steeler fans, both locally and across the country, are very, very loyal.

BNR: In the book, you seemed shocked that a world-class architect such as Peter Eisenman, who designed the stadium with a retractable roof and moveable field, could be such a huge football fan.

ASJ: I thought it was a remarkable coincidence. Eisenman has a reputation as an architectural theorist, a heavyweight who'll design a house with a stairway to nowhere to challenge the viewer's preconceptions. And within a couple minutes of meeting him, I found out that he's an absolutely fanatical sports fan and he's been a Giants season ticket holder since that 1958 championship game. And as the season wears on, his Giants make an improbable championship run and win the Super Bowl in a stadium he designed. You can't make something like that up.

BNR: With all your research into the subject, do you think publicly financed stadiums are worth it?

ASJ: I think that publicly financed stadiums should be analyzed carefully and dispassionately, the same way you'd weigh the pros and cons of a sewage project. And one of the questions that has to be answered is how the building will be used the other 357 days of the year. By putting a moveable field in University of Phoenix Stadium, Peter Eisenman designed a building that could also be used as a concert venue and a convention hall when it wasn't hosting a football game.

BNR: But how objective can you be with a sports stadium? Sports are a highly emotional entertainment with one player, coach, owner having the ability to lift a city's spirits or embarrass an entire metropolis. How does a city work that kind of thinking into its plans? Seems impossible.

ASJ: Most of the time, a team's threat to move is just an idle threat, and I think more politicians should have the courage to call the team's bluff. They should say "this is a reasonable amount of money to spend and this isn't" and be willing to walk away if the number gets out of hand. Officials should be more concerned about the responsibility to their constituents and their communities than their own personal legacies.

BNR: You raise an interesting point in the book that the halftime show is running out of big names that have name recognition and a comfort level for a wide variety of fans. What do you think will happen down the road?

ASJ: The NFL wants a performer who's both hip and familiar, an act that can appeal to both 16-year-olds and 60-year-olds. And in an age of narrowcasting, there are few new artists that can hit all of those notes. You might start to see a rotation sort of like the one for venues with artists coming back and doing the halftime show again. That said, getting Bruce Springsteen to play this year's halftime was a huge coup for the league. He's really the archetypal halftime performer. He's an American artist with a huge fan base that connects to him on so many levels, but the NFL doesn't have to worry that he's going to blurt out the F-word or have a wardrobe malfunction.

BNR: Do you ever see Super Bowl commercials as Hail Mary passes for companies? How effective is it, particularly if a company is already struggling?

ASJ: The classic Hail Mary was 1984, the Apple commercial that was directed by Ridley Scott. This 60-second spot was really a little film. It didn't show the product and really had only one line of dialogue. Before the broadcast, the spot was so controversial within Apple, and performed so poorly in tests, that the agency sold off all the ad time they had bought except for that one spot. But once the spot aired it became a huge news story, and Apple started selling Macintosh computers as fast as they could make them. The next year, Apple tried to do the same thing with a commercial called "Lemmings," directed by Tony Scott. But that spot flopped and Apple sales plummeted. These were such seminal spots that agencies and advertisers still remember them today.

BNR: What draws you to writing about sports?

From the time I was a little boy, sports has always mattered to me, and I know how much sports matters to other people too. There were plenty of days when I was a kid where my mood for the whole day -- or even the whole week -- depended upon the outcome of a particularly important game. And that passion gives me a real common ground with my readers. I don't think of myself as a sportswriter so much as a writer who writes about sports, like John McPhee or Michael Lewis. I like to tell stories and explore ideas, and the world of sports gives me the opportunity to do that in a place where most of my readers know the basics. I can talk about the details and the nuances and sometimes take the conventional wisdom and turn it on its ear.

BNR: Like what?

ASJ: The Playboy party (during Super Bowl week) is a perfect example of this. While the buzz about this party is all Playmates and A-list celebrities -- and that's the reason why some people literally trade game tickets for party tickets -- the behind-the-scenes planning was totally nuts-and-bolts, from creating a party venue in the middle of nowhere to sweating the smallest details about the potted plants. It wasn't at all what I expected.

BNR: How did this book build on your last one?

ASJ: A lot of people have said that The Billion Dollar Game is a really big departure from my last book, Clapton's Guitar, but I don't see it that way. Both of these books are about watching real experts doing something as well as it can be done under enormous pressure, which I think is about the most interesting thing that there is.

BNR: Do you think it's changed the way you deal with pressure?

ASJ: It's funny, just a few days ago, I wrote a story for about Flight 1549, and the pilots I talked to suggested that the key to the safe landing was that the cockpit crew was able to forget that this was a life-threatening situation and approach putting the plane down in the Hudson the same way they'd approach landing on a runway at La Guardia. And, while the stakes at the Super Bowl aren't life and death, the FOX broadcast crew knew that they needed to approach the Super Bowl like a regular game, finding something familiar in this extraordinary moment. When I'm writing, I try to do the same thing. I try to stay in the moment, write the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph, and not worry too much about who's going to read it and what they might think about it.

BNR: Are you going back for the game and all its parties this year? If not, do you think you'll miss it?

ASJ: I'll be staying home this year, and while I'll miss it at some level, I'm not romanticizing it. For me, Super Bowl week was all about work, with lots of early mornings that dragged on into late nights. It was fun, but it was plenty stressful, too, so I'll be happy to talk about the book from studios in New York, and watch the game with my wife, my kids and my 12-week old golden retriever puppy, Tessie.

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