HOUSTON — For the second consecutive Super Bowl in which the Patriots are playing, we’re talking about deflation.
No, not that kind of deflation. Even though we still can’t escape the shadow of Deflategate—some of the questions to commissioner Roger Goodell this week about it teetered on grandstanding—this deflation is different.
There’s an odd feel to Super Bowl LI that’s tough to define, but it distinctly feels like the air has been sucked out of the event. And after losing the ratings battle to politics at the start of the 2016 season, the NFL’s kryptonite seemed to have returned about two weeks ago.
This is not a political column, because no matter where you stand you’re probably tired from the past 14 days. But the same logic that was applied earlier in the NFL season to explain the ratings drop could be applied to the lack of energy surrounding Sunday’s game.
Before the election on Nov. 8, ratings were down about 15% from the 2015 season. In the weeks following the most contentious election in the country’s history, ratings had improved to just a 2% decrease from the previous year.
“It’s an encouraging rebound,” Goodell told ESPN in December. “I think it proves that the election was certainly a factor.”
So why can’t the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration be a factor in this humdrum week? The pre-election drop was tied to voter fatigue and, in part, some fan blowback from the athlete activism trend. Now consider this post-inauguration Super Bowl.
There were marches of millions of women across America. Citizens have been calling their representatives non-stop to influence politicians how to vote on cabinet nominations. The ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. without extra vetting has put lives in limbo while others protest at airports for their rights. Hell, some of us even had to figure out how to delete Uber and install Lyft on our phones.
Perhaps a football game—even the biggest one of the year—is subordinate.
The players on both teams haven’t done much to add any hype, either. Naturally their coaches want it that way, but there’s been very little for print, radio and TV media to chew on this week.
There’s no Marshawn Lynch here avoiding fines, no uncertainty or controversy about PSI and no Peyton Manning sunset ride to contrast against Cam Newton’s polarizing rise to stardom. This Super Bowl you get Martellus Bennett saying in a very nice way he wouldn’t visit a Trump White House, Tom Brady choking back tears about his dad and Dan Quinn rolling out football clichés about brotherhood that, even though these Falcons live it, are clichés nonetheless.
By now you know the Patriots’ stories. This is the seventh time they’ve been here in the past 16 years with the same coach and quarterback. You can hate the dynastic Patriots for being so good, but they’ve never embraced the Evil Empire persona that would go a long way in driving more interest in this game. And for as exciting as the Falcons’ offense is, there are no outsized personalities with Michael Strahan post-football potential on the team.
Of course, there’s also the Patriots’ close ties to Trump. The owner has spoken well of the president, the coach writes him letters and the quarterback has tried (not so well) to back away from his pseudo-endorsement from 2015. A neutral fan could find themselves rooting for Trump’s team or for the squad from Georgia’s 5th Congressional district, but that doesn’t make the fan particularly excited for the game.
None of this, it should be noted, is an affront to the city of Houston or the Super Bowl committee. The logistics here have been great and the amenities plenty. The nightlife has roared here like other Super Bowls. Radio row has still had its celebrities—from Papa John making pizzas to Tim Tebow eating guacamole straight from a container between interviews.
But there’s no doubt been a different vibe to this Super Bowl week. Each day of the past 14 days has felt like its own week for most of us, and maybe we’re all just exhausted.