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COLUMN ONE : Oh, Yes, There’s a Game, Too : The Super Bowl has ballooned into a weeklong series of promotional gigs, nightclub hops, blimp rides and theme parties. How did it get so big and gaudy?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that the smoked shrimp cakes and Godiva souffles are gone and the empty wine bottles are piled up like razed forests . . . now that the lights have gone down on 4,000 revelers at the Biltmore and the Bonaventure . . . now that the Diet Pepsi Uh-huh girls have shimmied their approval and Roger Staubach has moved among the hors d’oeuvres tables . . . now that the big screen is ready at Hef’s . . . now that Garth Brooks is standing by for the National Anthem . . . now that 3,000 members of the media are properly credentialed and 54 satellite “up-link” trucks are poised to beam images to Rome, Berlin and Hong Kong, the world awaits a football game in Pasadena.

The Super Bowl is back, a behemoth born here 26 years ago, now so Gargantuan that seismographs nearly quiver as it comes juking and jitterbugging through town. For athletic drama, this year’s contest offers two top teams, the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, playing for the professional championship. More than 102,000 people are expected to pack the Rose Bowl today for the 3:18 p.m. kickoff.

But the Super Bowl is no longer just a weekend spectacle; it has ballooned into a weeklong bash, a numbing succession of news conferences, promotional gigs, nightclub hops, street festivals, harbor cruises, blimp rides and theme parties decked out with the likes of live Florida alligators and Muscle Beach bodybuilders. The voices and faces and cocktails and rock music and pasta salads blur into one staccato stream of excesses.

“It has exploded in the last few years,” said Patricia Ryan, president of Marina del Rey-based Party Planners West, which is handling the National Football League’s tailgate party today for top sponsors and clients. That event alone, on the grounds of the Rose Bowl, will entertain 8,500 guests on a 275-foot replica of Santa Monica Pier, complete with fully operating bumper cars, a carousel and a Ferris wheel.

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Before Ryan began planning the revel, Los Angeles officials offered to drag out the plans from the last time the Super Bowl was here, six years ago, when the same party accommodated 6,000 fewer people. “I said to them: ‘Throw away the books. You won’t recognize it.’ ”

Evidence of the game’s new scale is visible on Los Angeles streets hung with red Super Bowl banners. As many as 2,500 limousines were prowling those streets last week, by one rental manager’s estimate, and 1,000 limousines are expected to roll into the Super Bowl lot carrying fans who have paid up to $1,750--or 10 times face value--for game tickets.

To many high-rollers, even limousines are now passe . Hundreds will be swarming in by chartered helicopter at $300 to $400 a head. So many are expected that the golf course driving range adjoining the Rose Bowl has been turned into a temporary heliport, with multiple landing pads and a federally operated control tower.

Television’s vast reach will carry the game not only to about 125 million viewers in the United States, but also to 100 nations worldwide, according to National Football League officials. The total audience may reach 700 million to 1 billion.

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Christopher Davies of the London Telegraph, who has covered several recent Super Bowls, said American football has a cult following in Great Britain. For selfish reasons, the Super Bowl is one of his favorites, Davies said. “It’s the hugest indulgence in the world. . . . I love it. Last year we took a limo from the stadium after the game, had a nice little cocktail party. We drove around for an hour and couldn’t find Elvis.”

So how did it all get so big, so downright gaudy? Underlying the game’s colossal status are complex psychological and economic forces. In part, according to those who study such things, the event sates a fundamental human craving for shared climax, the cyclic buildup to common milestones. Years ago, religious holidays provided that sense of anticipation and importance, said USC Prof. Dallas Willard, a specialist in the philosophy of sport and culture.

Now, a more secular populace turns to the Super Bowl and World Series for reassurance in a largely frightening and chaotic world.

“Sports is a primary refuge from meaninglessness,” Willard said. “As society has become increasingly unmanageable by the individual, it has called for these massive social expressions . . . in which we see ourselves and identify ourselves.”

But crass commercialism operates in tandem with those higher yearnings, the yin and yang of seller and buyer, promoter and fan. To much of America, including the cities that host it, the Super Bowl represents extraordinary opportunity. By some estimates, this year’s game will mean a $150-million windfall for Los Angeles, mostly in legal cash flow to hotels, restaurants and tourist meccas. The total excludes the lesser fortunes to be had by ticket scalpers, pickpockets, call girls, unlicensed souvenir hucksters and, not least of all, by law-evading bookmakers.

As a corporate promotional tool, the Super Bowl is an unrivaled magnet drawing together the elite among America’s advertising wizards, marketing teams, retailers, distributors and board chairmen. “Something like 59% of the people who come to the game are corporate decision-makers,” said the NFL’s Jim Steeg, in accounting for much of the game’s skyrocketing growth.

Image-making and client wooing are two of the driving forces behind the weeklong Super Bowl hoopla. Many of the largest parties--including private, game-day fests for about 14,000 guests--are thrown by the league or its sponsors as a way to thank or motivate valued customers and employees.

The party circuit is its own study in Americana. In some cases, a task as simple as preparing the guest list becomes a dicey exercise in diplomacy. Pierre Cossette, founder and producer of music’s Grammy Awards, stages one of Hollywood’s A-list parties each year, renting out clubby Chasen’s restaurant for stars and top industry executives and agents. Jack Lemmon is a regular. So are Andy Williams and Don Rickles.

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Though the eats are strictly stadium fare--mostly hot dogs and burgers--the need to cull 400 invitees from his 1,000 or so industry contacts invariably fosters hurt and anger. “I hear: ‘Hey . . . what am I, chopped liver? I’ve known you 15 years'--things like that,” Cossette said. “You make a million enemies for not inviting them. It’s the hot ticket in show business that day.”

The reasons for that extend far beyond touchdowns and peanuts. The party is a seedbed for professional liaisons, bringing together creative talent from the fields of both music and motion pictures. “There are a lot of deals made in a place like that,” Cossette said. “There are connections made--'Let’s have lunch,’ those kinds of things. You get close to the key players.”

In the far more fickle world of television advertising, the Super Bowl is of blockbuster importance. Careers rise and fall--and market shares are gained and lost--in the subtle chess games waged among multimillion-dollar sponsors. Over time, those wars have become more costly and sophisticated, paralleling the rising involvement of cities that compete for the chance to play host.

The enormous recent growth of the game can be traced back 11 years, to the first time the Super Bowl left the Sun Belt, said the NFL’s Steeg. That year, Detroit seized upon the game to promote a civic image, as did unheralded Tampa, Fla., two years later. Publicity efforts brought more media, which expanded exposure and drove up the economic returns.

Civic organizations began playing an ever-greater role in staging festivals, parties and in handling some of the logistics of hotel accommodations and mass transportation.

One of the biggest landmarks in the advertising world came during the 1984 Super Bowl, pioneering the way for the corporate frenzy that has become synonymous with the game. It was back then that struggling Apple Computer launched its new Macintosh line with a 60-second spot. The ad, one of television’s first $1-million commercials, featured shaved automatons marching in lock step under the direction of a dictator figure depicted on a huge video screen. A young blonde, symbolizing new modes of thought, ended the spot by throwing a hammer at the screen, which exploded in a blinding flash of light.

Ad copywriter Steve Hayden, who helped to create the ad and now runs the BBDO Agency in Los Angeles, said the response was phenomenal. All three networks at the time showed footage of the ad and it was written about in Time, Newsweek, Fortune and major newspapers from coast to coast. Apple’s Macintosh line, which debuted two days later, sold $3.5 million worth of product in six hours, with $1 million more placed on order.

“There was something incredibly magical--and powerful--about the fact that the whole world was watching,” Hayden said. “Then it occurred to a whole lot of people that maybe this is the place for putting ideas into people’s heads.”

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A succession of major companies followed Apple’s lead, turning the game into television’s premier event for launching high-cost ad campaigns. Television time, which ran about $500,000 for a 30-second spot in 1984, climbed proportionately. This year, NBC was asking $850,000 per half-minute for Super Bowl commercial time, and all 56 spots sold out two weeks ago, a network spokesman said.

To some, the hype has reached unbearable levels. “It’s too much, they blow it all out of proportion,” said bartender Ed Ober, 24, serving up free drinks at a massive media party Thursday night at Universal Studios. As he spoke, a quartet stood in the seats of a red convertible, belting out a song--"Mike mike bo bike, banana-fanna fo fike . . . "--while a nearby marquee touted the name of a soft drink company.

“Parties are good, but when you get into spending millions of dollars for a football game, you wonder if there’s something wrong,” Ober said. “You know how many mouths they could feed, right here in America?”

Still, the Super Bowl holds a mystique. While insisting that their costs must be justified by a return on investment, some advertisers say to take part is to rank among the elite, like owning a Rolls-Royce or shopping on Rodeo Drive.

“The eyes of the world are on the Super Bowl; it’s the broadcast event of the year, bar none,” said spokesman Andrew Giangola of the Pepsi-Cola Co., which has purchased 5 1/2 minutes of that commercial time--more than any other company--to unveil not one, but two new slants aimed at moving carbonated beverages. “It’s not only the day the football champion is decided, but it’s a day when the advertising champion is decided.”

*

Dusk has fallen and the guests are streaming into the elegant grounds of the Playboy mansion. People in clusters--mostly men--sip cocktails near an aqua-lighted pool, enclosed by shrubs twinkling with white lights. Here and there, smiling Playmates mingle and pose for pictures.

On this Tuesday evening, 400 guests are expected, all of them delegates of a two-day Sport Summit trade show at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, timed for Super Bowl week. Celebrity athletes in the throng include Nadia Comaneci, the gymnast, and Gail Devers, the Olympic sprint gold medalist.

For football fan Hugh Hefner, who personifies Super Bowl zeal and corporate ambition, the elaborate party crisply symbolizes the all-out opulence of many game-week bashes that also serve underlying business goals. In co-sponsoring the trade show, Playboy is looking to deepen its involvement in the lucrative sports-marketing industry, whose demographic cornerstones--young males--are the key components of Playboy’s reader base, said company executive Michael O’Hara Lynch.

So under a soaring outdoor tent, tubes of pink neon illuminate the fronds of artificial palm trees as keen business minds discuss the scale and future of the game. Chad Ritchie of Tiffany & Co., which crafts the $20,000, sterling-silver winner’s trophy, says the firm will be touting its role in the Super Bowl a week hence in Japan.

William Correia, a promotions executive with Isuzu, says the auto maker once again is bringing its top national salesmen to the game, though it has withdrawn from the pricey TV advertising wars. “The Super Bowl works . . . as an incentive trip,” he said, adding in a tone of regret: “There’s an awful lot of discussion in terms of whether the advertising time is worth it.”

For many such companies, the game is a two-pronged gamble, involving payoffs to valued customers and come-bets on future sales. Yet, the major players form a long list--among them, American Express Corp., Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Ford Motor Co., GTE, Miller Brewing Co. and Pepsi.

Those and other firms bring their VIPs to a climax of partying today with a three-hour bash before the game, then another three-hour bash after the game, all within the “corporate hospitality village” of tents outside the Rose Bowl.

Regency Productions by Hyatt, which stages the parties, charges $300 per head, but companies consider it the crowning touch in the week’s noisy bid to gain the favors of the clients that control vital purse strings. As the seduction unfolds, the Super Bowl itself--the game on the football field--becomes almost meaningless, said Merrill Squires, marketing director of Sports Illustrated magazine, which was entertaining 400 top clients with parties and tickets.

“We try to create an environment that’s so much fun and so exciting, they come out of it feeling like they’ve had great time and many lasting memories,” Squires said.

As the parties flash and fade like fireworks, the high-stakes battle for promotional superiority rages on all week, adding enormously to the game’s hype. GTE Corp. is putting out its message by giving away more than 102,000 seat cushions, each containing a tiny radio and a display card for use in the halftime show.

In the cola wars, Pepsi is spending heavily on TV spots while Coke, the Super Bowl’s official soft drink, is not airing a single game-time commercial. Instead, Coke is sponsoring street banners, festivals and the NFL Experience, a 700,000-square-foot theme park erected in tents outside the Rose Bowl, where visitors can attend exhibits, shop and compete in various events, such as trying to beat the sprint time of the league’s fastest player.

As part of its year-round investment with the league, Coke is accorded special treatment at Super Bowl parties, including the 8,500-guest tailgate bash as well as twin, 2,000-person formal galas Saturday night at the Biltmore and Bonaventure hotels. Ryan, the party planner handling those events, said each event is “NFL-ized” to ensure that only the sponsors’ products are seen by guests or TV cameras.

In arranging an outdoor event, if there was “any way that a camera could swing into a Pepsi billboard (even) a block away, you would move the whole thing,” Ryan said. “You have to make sure that every bartender, every food and beverage manager at the hotels, can only serve (sponsors’) products.”

At one recent event, she recalled, cameras were uncomfortably close to a grandstand where Pepsi concessionaires had been at work. “We actually . . . went into the stands and asked people to kindly pour their drinks into a regular, plain cup, so if any cameras (shot footage of the stands), somebody wouldn’t be drinking out of a Pepsi cup,” Ryan said.

The league also looks out for its own lustrous image.

As the Super Bowl became perceived as an event strictly for the rich, its role in philanthropic causes was expanded. The NFL Experience--which more than tripled in size this year after a successful debut--enables fans of all economic backgrounds to feel close to the game, and all admission revenues are being donated to charity, said the NFL’s Don Garber. The league’s cost in creating the theme park was about $2 million, he said.

Brooks, who agreed to sing the National Anthem, also agreed to perform two benefit shows Friday night at the Forum, with $1 million in proceeds going to NFL youth charities. For the second year, top chefs gathered from around the country, this time to whip up a $125-a-plate buffet for a crowd of 1,500. All that money is going to charity too.

And there is more. Tickets are being given away to inner-city kids, and Michael Jackson was recruited to perform the halftime show, with the event doubling as a fund-raiser for his newly launched Heal the World Foundation.

“We really started focusing in the mid-1980s on fan comforts . . . sound systems, Jumbotron (scoreboards), seat cushions,” Steeg said. “Where I think we’re headed for the next couple of years is . . . more social consciousness.”

*

As many as 100,000 visitors may be in Los Angeles for today’s game, the NFL estimates. Inevitably, the airports and bus terminals disgorge more than a few who are loath to put their faces on television, or to advertise their presence with fancy logos. These are the pickpockets, prostitutes and bookmakers who gravitate to places where vast crowds carry vast wealth.

Police in Los Angeles and Pasadena have bolstered their vice and bunko units in preparation.

As a gambling event, the Super Bowl is a lightning rod of legal and illegal action. Attorney Howard Gershan, who defends bookmakers in Los Angeles, said the game turns $100 bets into $1,000 bets, and brings gamblers out of nowhere. “Vice officers love . . . to arrest (a bookmaker) the day before the Super Bowl,” Gershan said. “That’s considered the ultimate slap.”

On the legal side, hotel rooms at the Mirage in Las Vegas, where one pregame gambler plunked down $200,000 on the Buffalo Bills, were sold out in September, and 50,000 out-of-town visitors were flooding the city, said Jimmy Vaccaro, the Mirage’s director of sports wagering.

“It’s just incredible,” he said, noting that part of the allure is the 60-some ways to bet on the game. “You can bet on who’s going to score first, which team’s going to punt first, punt last, the longest running play from scrimmage, the longest field goal . . . personal matchups, Thurman Thomas vs. Emmitt Smith . . . will there be a safety? Will there be an overtime? Total sacks. Will Buffalo score more than 20? Under 20?

“It’s nonstop action the entire day.”

Naturally, the scramble for a buck extends to T-shirt makers and ticket brokers. Richard Marlowe, who runs Star Tickets in West Los Angeles, begins running ads weeks before the game, offering to buy and sell. He scares up tickets from players and season-ticket holders in other NFL cities and adds a markup of $100 or more before dispensing at prices hovering at $400 to $1,750.

At those prices, Arcadia resident Shane Crowell was having no part of the traffic snarl in Pasadena. He was leaving town, going to Cancun, Mexico.

It so happens that they are partying down there too. Cuervo Tequila was staging yet another of those big corporate promotions, a three-day beach bash featuring the Stray Cats in concert, the Super Bowl on the big screen on the sand and “wild beach games, prizes, and lots of . . . margaritas all day long.”

Crowell, 22, won himself the trip, doing the end-zone dance in his local bar. And he figured, why not?

“I need a little break,” he said. “I don’t know too much about the place. I guess it’s down near the Equator or something.”


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