Football – the sport known everywhere but America as “American football” – has become popular far beyond U.S. borders. Over 800 million fans worldwide are expected to be glued to their screens for the Super Bowl on February 13th, and a few of those million will be sitting on German couches.
In Germany, the Super Bowl often coincides with winter break at Bavarian schools, Faschingsferien, although not this year. My former colleague Stefan regularly took that week off to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to watch the game with his son. Not only was his son an avid football fan, he even played on a local team. But I recently learned that his interest in the game has waned in favor of baseball, another American sport making sharp inroads into Germany.
This is not to say that Americans no longer dominate baseball. My friend Mike bragged about being the best player on an amateur team that plays on the baseball diamond in Haar, just outside Munich. This is unremarkable until you learn that Mike is over 50 and everyone else on the team is much younger. But being American, he grew up playing baseball, as opposed to Germans, who dabble in it out of a fascination with an exotic sport from across the Atlantic. Even I, someone rather disinclined towards team sports, played catch with a baseball and enjoyed the related game of running bases in our front yard, the same way German kids grow up kicking around a soccer ball on the playground.
Raising kids in Germany sparked a determination in me to inculcate them into American culture, a fierceness that didn’t stop at sports. This was quite a challenge since my knowledge of sports is confined to the stadium snack menu. Fortunately, we happened to have an American CD with children’s songs that included the iconic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which seemed like a proper introduction to baseball. I explained to my kids what “Cracker Jacks” refer to in the lyrics and what a “home team” is. A perfectly sufficient introduction to the sport, I felt.
I later learned otherwise.
After a two-week summer stay at a friend’s house near Baltimore, my daughter recounted how they had gone to see a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. Brilliant, I thought! My thorough education in things baseball was coming full circle. But then she related how she had experienced a moment of great shock when they played the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the stadium. Shock, since this was a song she considered to be 1) unheard of, since nobody else in her (German) social circle had ever brought it up, and 2) for children. Her surprise became all the greater when the entire stadium crowd started singing along.
On a trip to the U.S. a couple of summers ago, we managed to get in a football game in Cleveland for a game with the local NFL team, the Browns. I had fond memories from my childhood of the snacks, fewer of the game. I had no expectations that my daughters would fall in love with football – more that they would get a kick out of it (heh).
What I did not expect was how the game itself had morphed since I had last attended one 30 years prior. The football game had been drowned in a multimedia carnival, reduced to a distant distraction down on the field.
Giant screens now encircle the playing field, broadcasting a constant stream of commercials, video clips, and slow-motion replays. It takes Zen-like concentration to look past these screens and focus on the action on the playing field – the reason, after all, why we had come in the first place (although granted, this is not terribly exciting).
Mega-loudspeakers bark nonstop announcements, songs, chants, and my favorite command: “Make some noise!”
To my dismay, people actually shout and whoop in response to this – even though we were already being deafened by the barely tolerable cacophony. To me, the command to “make some noise” seemed like asking a cowboy who’s just returned from sitting in the saddle for a two-week cattle drive if he wants to take the horse out for a pleasure ride around the ranch.
I suppose this three-ring football circus is designed to compete with the media that have become omnipresent outside stadiums. Perhaps people no longer have the attention span to simply sit and watch the game, including the moments between plays when everyone on the field just stands around, spitting and scratching themselves.
On second thought, maybe that’s exactly why they put they installed the screens: to distract us from gross sportsman moments.
All this hullabaloo in the stadium made me feel much more virtuous about attending games just for the snacks and the halftime show. In any case, we left before it was over, saturated with media and satiated from hot dogs.
At least the Super Bowl on TV is reduced to a single screen that can be quickly turned off if the action becomes overwhelming. I won’t be watching, but I will catch the most important bits the next day on YouTube: the elaborate, specially produced multimillion-dollar commercials; and the equally professional halftime show with Rihanna.