Starting tonight, the wooing of the media covering the Super Bowl begins in earnest. By most accounts, the string of parties for the media on tap in San Diego--ranging from tonight's bash at the Hotel del Coronado and a Tijuana trek to dinner with Shamu and breaking bread with Pete Rozelle--is unprecedented.
And that is saying a lot. If there's one tradition, one aura that has developed around the game, it's that in all of sports, there are no parties bigger, none more lavish or as anticipated than those at the Super Bowl.
Behind the free meals and drinks, the free media pouches branded with Super Bowl logos, the free mementos sent to many sportswriters after the game, the free pens and note pads, there is a purpose.
For the National Football League it's a way of making life easier on reporters--who are encamped in San Diego for a week or more. For San Diego, it's the hope that the wining and dining will leave the media with a favorable impression of the city, an image that, with luck, will wend its way into newspapers, magazines and radio and television broadcasts across the nation and the world.
Do the rounds of festivities have an impact? What does all this emphasis on feeding and watering sportswriters and other media say about journalism, anyway?
Well, say sportswriters, it's really not such a big deal, even if San Diego seems to be going to the greatest lengths ever to accommodate the expected 2,300 media members--1,000 of them working print and broadcast reporters. They are usually too busy, they say, to really partake in the offerings beyond a superficial level. And besides, they will tell you, some of the most publicized functions, principally Rozelle's NFL party, long ago ceased to be a media party.
More important, while the general public might view the entire matter as another example of the media as freeloaders, reporters and the NFL say such skepticism is generally unfounded.
Times in the sports journalism community have changed, they say. Strict ethics codes at many newspapers have put a damper on any obvious quid pro quo between the league and media outlets. Also at play are two other elements, say sportswriters: a reliance on common sense--does anyone really expect a few free drinks to translate into
favorable stories?--and a new generation of sports journalists who grew up in the '60s and '70s and who bring with them a more critical view of all the hoopla.
It all begins tonight at the Hotel del Coronado, where the Super Bowl Press Party, a $150,000 fete just to court the media, will be held between 7 and 9:30. Host is the ocean-front hotel, which this year is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and Pepsi Co. and Coronado merchants. As many as 2,000 people are expected to indulge in 1,200 pounds of spare ribs, 2,000 pounds of roast beef, 2,700 lamb chops, 3,000 hot dogs, 3,000 hot pretzels, 1,500 pounds of hamburger, 100 gallons of chili, 250 gallons of ice cream, 3,000 chocolate and peanut butter cookies, 50 kegs of beer, gallons of wine and hard liquor and special drinks called the Blitz, the Huddle and the Quarterback Sack.
The next night, the party moves to Tijuana--a prospect several sportswriters find intriguing and amusing. Billed as "Super Fiesta Tijuana '88," officials in Mexico plan on closing a portion of Avenida Revolucion, downtown's main street, for a street party. Reporters and NFL VIPs will be bused south of the border and treated to food, liquor, gifts and various forms of entertainment, including a stop at Caliente Racetrack to watch the greyhounds and a visit to the jai alai games at the Fronton Palacio.
'Gourmet Box Dinners'
On Thursday night, Sea World is sponsoring SuperNite Sea World, the largest media party ever sponsored by the aquatic park, according to spokesman Dan LeBlanc. As many as 4,000 people--including all of the accredited Super Bowl media--are expected to eat "gourmet box dinners" and be entertained by the likes of Shamu the killer whale. Six bars dispensing free beverages will be scattered throughout the Mission Bay park. "We're billing it as a media welcome to San Diego," said LeBlanc. "Show them this is Sea World . . . and show them a good time."
On Friday night, Rozelle is putting on his annual bash for about 3,000 at a North Island Naval Air Station hangar, an event where the scramble for tickets is more intense than for entry into Sunday's game.
In between the parties, the media will be provided with open bars at some hotels, as well as golf and tennis tournaments. What is the cumulative impact of all these soirees?
Image of Freeloaders
"I think the man on the street has the perception that sportswriters are a bunch of freeloaders . . . and I hate to say that it's not totally inaccurate, though it's not as prevalent as it once was. Now the emphasis is on paying (our) own way, the plane (tickets) and the dinners," said Edwin Pope, Miami Herald sports editor and columnist for 32 years.
Pope, who calls himself "somewhat reclusive" and doesn't like parties, cocktail or otherwise, is one of only a few sportswriters who has attended all previous 21 Super Bowls, though few of the festivities.
The Miami Herald, he said, has a strict policy against accepting free gifts, but "I've never had anyone in authority say that you can't go to the parties . . . (that you) go cover the game but you can't go to any parties." In contrast to the largess of the Super Bowl, said Pope, Wimbledon is downright stingy. "Nothing there is free . . . you pay for every nickel's worth of food you get, and it's high-priced."
Number of Goodies Drops
Some, such as the NFL's Jim Steeg, the league's director of special events, say the NFL has cut down on media goodies. "We've really cut down on many things due to changes in philosophy on the part of many newspapers," he said. "No. 1, some papers won't accept them (gifts and mementos offered by the NFL), and No. 2, some send us back checks for them.
"Our philosophy has always been, with lunches at the stadium, for example, to make it easier (for them) to get the job done or you're going to have a problem. If we didn't have buses (provided for the media), you couldn't get things done," Steeg said.
For Glenn Dickey, a San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter and columnist, the Super Bowl is more "like a big trade convention for sportswriters."
"It's not much different than any of the big (sports) events," Dickey said, "where there is free booze everywhere." Years ago, he says, the NFL Players Assn. would get upset with the league's pampering of sportswriters.
"The feeling was the NFL was buying the writers and whenever there was a confrontation (between the league and the players), the writers would go with the NFL. I always thought that was pretty ridiculous.
"If you compared the coverage between the '74 strike and '83 strike, it was radically different," said Dickey, a sportswriter since 1963. "The reason for that is that there are more writers now who grew up in the '60s and '70s. They bring a new look to it (professional football). They aren't as entrenched . . . they aren't, as a group, writers who can be bought off with a gift."
As for the NFL's Super Bowl mementos--this year it's a desk clock--Dickey says it's not a big deal. "I threw (last year's gift) out when I was cleaning my office recently." Others use the gifts for other purposes.
At the Kansas City Star, which also has a strict ethics code, "We have a gathering of sports desk people every summer, a hot dog-picnic-volleyball sort to thing. We hand them out as joke gifts to the kids," said Gib Twyman, a sports columnist for the newspaper and a sportswriter for 22 years.
Twyman, an articulate, thoughtful man, says that from a moral and ethical standpoint, the parties and freebies associated with the Super Bowl have in many ways lost their zing.
"I'm one of 3 million schmucks who shows up at these functions . . . you don't look at this thing like it's for you personally," he said. "It's not like it's the first time I've ever seen an hors d'oeuvre . . . it's not going to turn your head.
"These kind of bashes have been going on for so many years, they've lost their effect," Twyman said. "It's now reached a point where people poke fun at them and write about the excess."