Super Bowl 50: All That Glitters
ESPN The Magazine|February 8,2016

From beer cans to yard-line markers, the NFL has turned a gold 50 into a ubiquitous brand—and proved our weakness for shiny objects.

 

Bryan Curtis

5 A.M., DEC. 19. Fifty days before Super Bowl 50. It’s black and cold in downtown San Francisco. Heavy rain is beginning to fall. Five workmen grunt as they open the rear door of an 18-wheeler parked near city hall. Inside, there is a giant wooden crate.

The lead workman, Tug Orr, has a name that sounds like the groans of heavy lifting. People will be here soon! Orr shouts into his cellphone. This has to get done! As rain slides off his ball cap, he gets behind the wheel of a small forklift. With the care of a Jurassic Park game warden, he slides the tines under the crate and lowers it to the ground, then pries off one side of the crate. “There it is,” Orr says. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” Illuminated by the headlights of the forklift, they can see a giant, golden No. 50. The workmen move it onto the sidewalk.

Even within San Francisco’s everything-is awesome aesthetic, the 50 makes for an outré piece of street art. It measures 6 feet high. It is made of aluminum and steel. Printed on the front of the digits are photos of the 49 previous Super Bowl rings. The base has the wrong date for the game (it says Feb. 7,2015), so Orr and his men quickly peel it off, leaving only a hashtag—#SB50—by way of explanation. Then they leave. The golden 50 sits in a lonely plaza with seagulls squawking overhead.

After a time, the rain eases and San Franciscans begin to drift by, like patrons who’d accidentally entered an art gallery. A man places a red laundry sack on the ground, turns his back to the golden 50 and practices tai chi. A woman in giant heels passes within inches, her chin held high, as if the 50 is an acquaintance she is trying to ignore. Old men with expensive windbreakers and bedrolls slow briefly, then excuse themselves—they are on a “street retreat” to connect with the homeless.

Eventually and without coaxing,passersby begin to do what the NFL wants: They begin to take selfies with the 50. And they beam the brand all over the world.

This 50 is not alone. San Francisco, the host of the Super Bowl, will soon have nine more 50s in locations around town. On TV, golden 50s glow from the midfield stripe every Sunday; in the refrigerator aisle of 7-Eleven, they glow on the sides of Bud Light cans. To further “romance” the brand—the verb of Super Bowl host committee CEO Keith Bruce—the league went to Tiffany & Co. and asked: Could the jeweler make a golden 50? Like, a real golden 50? The resulting bauble, cast in bronze and plated in 18-karat gold, weighs close to 70 pounds.

In the age of CTE, Deflategate and the Revel Casino elevator, it has become common to view the people who run the NFL as bumbling bureaucrats. This characterization is accurate. But it also obscures a much older critique: that the NFL is run by very, very rich men with a weakness for shiny things. Super Bowl 50’s golden 50 is worth thinking about, because it suggests that both of these critiques are true.

THE FIRST SIGN that the NFL regarded Super Bowl numbers as branding tools could be glimpsed in 1971. The early Super Bowls were branded with Arabic numerals. To give the game the air of a classic spectacle, the league transformed Super Bowl 5 into Super Bowl V. When the Colts and Cowboys delivered a turnover-filled disaster, writers pounced. “It featured a total of XI fumbles and interceptions and XIV penalties,” the New York  Post’s Larry Merchant wrote.

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