The Drama of Sports Transcends the Super Bowl Spectacle


At some point, the Super Bowl stopped being entirely about football and evolved — or is it devolved — into a corporate carnival with lavish parties, halftime extravaganzas and commercials whose budgets seemed to rival a blockbuster movie.

The apex of that transformation arrived with the N.F.L. planting this year’s event in Las Vegas, where the prevailing ethos might well be that a bellyful of anything is barely enough.

But Super Bowl LVIII, with its attendant flash — and America’s favorite football fan, Taylor Swift, chugging a beer in a private box — demonstrated on Sunday night how sports stands apart from other types of entertainment.

If the Kansas City Chiefs’ 25-22 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers was as tightly scripted as Usher’s elaborate choreography, the teams might have been pelted with rotten tomatoes or booed off the stage by halftime. It was mostly an evening of stumbles and bumbles: two fumbles, an interception, a muffed punt, a blocked extra point, a raft of untimely penalties — and for the 49ers enough regrets to last a lifetime.

But all the mistakes and all those field goals — seven in all — would eventually be subsumed by the tension that unfolded in the fourth quarter and continued on into overtime of what became the longest game in Super Bowl history.

The unexpected drama continued until the final play, when Patrick Mahomes, the fabulous Kansas City quarterback, tossed a touchdown pass to a wide-open Mecole Hardman — who had left the Chiefs as a free agent after last season, floundered with the Jets and then was traded back to Kansas City in mid-October. It was his first touchdown catch of the season.

As the Chiefs poured on to the field — and red and yellow confetti poured from cannons — the 49ers trudged off it, absorbing their second punch-to-the-gut Super Bowl loss to Kansas City in five years.

The tidy ending put a neat bow on what not long ago would have been unfathomable — the N.F.L. putting its marquee event in the country’s gambling capital. Much of that identity is betting on sports, which is still verboten for players and league employees even as the N.F.L. has licensing agreements worth nearly $1 billion over five years.

While Las Vegas has diversified, shifting toward entertainment, gambling is what distinguishes the city from Broadway, Disneyland — and Branson, Mo.

Meanwhile, the N.F.L. pushed out another made-for-TV spectacle.

Though Allegiant Stadium is covered, a flyover and fireworks from the roof were still part of the pregame festivities. The halftime show featuring Usher and friends was orchestrated down to the minute. And the exterior of the Sphere, the new futuristic concert venue, projected an American flag.

The commercials also managed to elbow their way into the conversation: Beyoncé used one to announce her next album. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. insinuated himself in the political conversation. And Carl Weathers appeared little more than a week after his death.

(One detail might have been overlooked. When the Kansas City players charged out of the tunnel before the game, they were greeted by a tomahawk chop chant as they ran through the end zone painted “Chiefs” and rimmed by an N.F.L. message: End racism.)

This N.F.L. season has been distinguished by the presence of Ms. Swift, who has been a regular at Chiefs games since shortly after she began dating Travis Kelce, the team’s star tight end.

Suddenly, anecdotally at least, more girls and young women have been turned on to a sport that has led them to learn the language of so many football-watching men in their lives. As if the nation’s most popular sport needed a boost.

So, there Ms. Swift was, joined in the Kelce family’s box, flanked by the actress Blake Lively and the singer Ice Spice, slamming a beer with the clapping approval of Travis’s bushy bearded older brother, Jason. The elder Mr. Kelce, who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, has followed his brother’s team on what has looked like a bare-chested pub crawl through the playoffs. He kept his shirt on Sunday, along with his yellow-and-red plaid overalls.

Travis Kelce was excitable, too. Frustrated by the offense’s early struggles, Mr. Kelce screamed in the face of Coach Andy Reid along the Kansas City sideline. He might have done well to heed Ms. Swift’s song, “You Need To Calm Down.”

As the Chiefs began celebrating in a cigar-smoke-filled locker room, Mr. Kelce struggled to open a gold Ace of Spades bottle of champagne. Once the bottle’s cork finally popped off, he spewed the spraying drink onto his corralled teammates, many of whom were already wearing large goggles over their eyes. Mr. Mahomes, at his nearby locker, carried a replica World Wrestling Entertainment championship trophy over his shoulder.

Before he reached the locker room, Mr. Kelce received a hug from his mother and embraced Ms. Swift, who planted a kiss on her boyfriend.

The scene may have been enough to set off another round of right-wing conspiracy theories about Ms. Swift, with her legion of devoted fans, being a Pentagon mole sent to influence this year’s presidential election.

(Sean McManus, the longtime CBS Sports chairman, poked fun at this joke last week when he said the N.F.L. had alerted him that the game could go into two overtimes. “You pay $2.1 billion, you get double overtime,” he said.)

To anyone else, the embrace between Mr. Kelce and Ms. Swift looked like a tender, unrehearsed moment celebrating the culmination of a monthslong journey.

The Chiefs’ victory gives them three Super Bowl titles in the past five seasons and makes them the first team since the New England Patriots in 2004 to win back-to-back titles — perhaps the one thing that on Sunday night stuck to the script.

Emmanuel Morgan and Kevin Draper contributed reporting.



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