A Billion People Can Be Wrong

February 06, 2006

That recordedphrase you hear while on hold for half an hour--"Your call is important tous"--means precisely the opposite of what it says. In truth, your call isnot important to them, or they'd have answered it by now.

Sports are filledwith similar expressions of insincerity, a Bizarro World in which the truth canbe entirely inverted, so that "It's not about the money" means"It's all about the money" and "I have never taken steroids,period" means "I have taken steroids, exclamation mark." A"vote of confidence," as every coach knows, is code for "You'refired."

So when we'reconstantly told that the Super Bowl is "an event watched by an estimatedone billion people worldwide" (The Detroit News) or that the Steelers andthe Seahawks "will be seen by a billion people in 225 countries"(Vancouver Province), it pays to do the math.

How exactly did wearrive at what the Ottawa Citizen calls the "Super Bowl's billion-plus TVaudience"? Last year the Super Bowl was watched by 86.1 million Americans,according to Nielsen Media Research, and by 3.1 million Canadians. That makesat least 89.2 million North American viewers, or less than one tenth of thealleged audience worldwide, where interest in NFL would seem to diminish withdistance. Are Johannesburgers really interested in Ben Roethlisberger?

Initiative, a NewYork--based media research firm, measured the global audience for last year'sSuper Bowl at 93 million people, with 98% of those viewers in North America.That would mean roughly two million people outside North America watched theSuper Bowl. It's an impressive figure for a sport the rest of the world doesn'tplay and a game that kicks off at ungodly hours on much of the planet. But it'sstill 907 million viewers short of a billion. The NFL only (and artfully) saysthat the Super Bowl is broadcast in 225 countries to a potential audience of abillion people. So when Bloomberg News reports that Super Bowl XL "will bebroadcast to an audience of one billion viewers," the news service ismistaken, though it's a bank error that works in the NFL's favor. All of whichis to say: My baloney has a first name, it's S-U-P-E-R.

Thisbillion-viewer myth, as unshakable as any urban legend, isn't a lie. Rather,it's the dictionary definition of hype: "Greatly exaggerated publicityintended to excite public interest in something." And so 93 million becomesa billion-plus.

Nobody seems tomind. For months the best-selling book in America was a non-fiction memoir thatis largely fiction. The linguists at the American Dialect Society namedtruthiness the word that best exemplified 2005. Truthiness is defined assomething "one wishes to be true, rather than facts."

So when KobeBryant scores 81 points in a game and says afterward, "It's about the W,that's why I turned it on," he appears to be less engaged in truth than intruthiness. (He wants to believe what he just said.) When he says he'd havebeen "sick as a dog" had he scored 81 points in a loss--well, thatsmells more like b.s. (Even he can't be buying that, can he?)

By now most sportsfans have what Hemingway called a writer's greatest asset: a "built-in,shock-proof" b.s. detector. So when Ron Artest's agent says his client"did not want to be traded to Sacramento weeks ago and does not want to betraded to Sacramento now," you're confident that in a matter of hoursArtest will declare himself--as he did last week--"very happy" to betraded to Sacramento. Some athletes are so transparently insincere as to beinoffensive. Like the airline that bumps you, then apologizes for any"inconvenience," they are simply doing what they do.

Likewise, it'shard to feign shock at Super Bowl malarkey. Seldom is truth more routinelyinverted than in the days leading up to the game, when a player can get anaward for "high moral character" and solicit a prostitute on the samenight--and choreographed halftime nudity is somberly attributed to a"wardrobe malfunction." That was the night that Janet Jackson decided,in the words of Newsday, to "bare her body to a billion people."

Which brings usback to those 907 million invisible Super Bowl viewers. The NFL and Fox saythat 133 million Americans saw some part of last year's Super Bowl. But even bythat charitable measure, 163 million Americans did not. That may be the moststaggering Super Bowl statistic: A sizable majority of Americans will somehowavoid watching a single minute of the game.

As with the 52million people who have bought Michael Bolton recordings, you don't personallyknow any of these Super Bowl heretics, but they exist. Which is more than wecan say for 90% of the people who supposedly watch.

• If you have acomment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

A media firm measured the global audience for lastyear's Super Bowl at 93 million people, about one tenth of the allegedviewership.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)