The Super Bowl Boulevard Is a Corporate Wonderland

The football-themed street fair in the middle of Times Square is a bewildering series of screens set up in the freezing cold. It's something out of <i>Batman Forever</i>. It's a near-future dystopia come to life.

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Jan 31 2014, 1:30pm

Sometimes, we need to be reminded that the world is a fundamentally absurd and silly place; that while there are people out there who command a lot of power and money, those people aren’t generally smarter or less goofy than you or me. For instance, there must have been a moment when there was a presentation, probably in some sleek conference room, about what events should be thrown in honor of the Super Bowl coming to New York City. One of the slides that appeared on the hi-def flatscreen read something like:

THROW A BIG STREET FAIR IN TIMES SQUARE IN LATE JANUARY? INVITE ALL THE BRANDS! (SUSAN PLEASE REWRITE TO MAKE IT SOUND BETTER THX)

And with that, or something like it, the Super Bowl Boulevard Engineered by GMC came into being. 

A press release has described the Super Bowl Boulevard as “a series of football-themed experiences that will take over Times Square the week before the big game. Stop by a live concert, snap a photo with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, or race down a specially made toboggan. [sic]” Another way to think of it, via Business Insider, is as a “garish branded hellscape… placed on top of the preexisting garish branded hellscape that is Times Square.” Having wandered around the Boulevard for a couple of hours in the freezing cold on Wednesday night, I can confirm that it is indeed both “football-themed” and “garish.” But calling it a “hellscape” is maybe being a bit unfriendly to the giant, multinational corporations responsible for it. They just want you to have a good time! Look, they brought the Rockettes in to do this:

They also built these giant Roman numerals, which rose from the ground like a heathen idol after an elaborate ceremony that involved not only the Rockettes, but also the Boys Choir of Harlem, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell, and the cast of the musical Jersey Boys:

Oh, did I mention Kevin Bacon’s band, the Bacon Brothers (best known for their hit “Wait, Kevin Bacon Is in a Band? Huh. OK, Good for Him I Guess”) played on Wednesday night? Kevin started off on the bongos:

The corporations even got some guy to dress like Cleatus, the robot that serves as a CGI mascot for NFL broadcasts on FOX and used to tweet fantasy football tips. (As he went through the crowd, a bunch of people started following him and shouted things like, “Yo! Is that a Transformer?” It was sort of like what I imagine would happen if Spider-Man were real and he walked around Times Square.)

Not surprisingly, given football fans' well-known love of television, there were also a huge number of screens on hand. Normally this stretch of Broadway is already full of giant televisions constantly beaming advertisements at the crowds of bewildered, over-stimulated tourists thronging the streets, but the NFL and their corporate sponsors decided to take it up a notch with kiosks streaming nonsensical social-media-related gibberish: 

…and giant, Stonehenge-esque monoliths showing looped advertisement for various attractions in New York State:

…and entire walls of buildings that transformed into commercials for the idea of football itself:

…and flatscreens mounted on stands that said “PEPSI” to no one in particular:

…and video games for those youngsters bored of meatspace:

…and finally, plain old televisions tuned to the NFL Network, just in case you wanted to veg out for a second in the midst of it all:

So, yes, this is possibly an excessive amount of screens. This is possibly an insane amount of screens. This is possibly the kind of thing that would have terrified earlier generations of humans, people who would have questioned why “#NYC” needs to be written in giant, glittery, shimmering letters on the side of one of the many temporary structures that has sprouted up in the middle of Broadway:

But needs has nothing to do with it. The NFL brings in roughly $10 billion a year in revenue, and GM, PepsiCo, Mars Chocolate, Microsoft, and the other companies whose logos peppered the Super Bowl Boulevard are some of the richest entities to ever roam the Earth. These avatars of wealth can do anything. If they want to build a huge artificial hill you can ride down in a toboggan, and they want that hill to resemble something that a particularly effective and brutal tyrant would build to entomb himself in, well: 

In fact, it seems to me that the problem facing these companies when they want to throw an event like this is that when you can do literally anything, it’s hard to figure out what to do with all that money. FOOTBALL FAN STREET FAIR may seem like a pretty good idea on a brainstorming sheet, but—well, let me put it this way. Here is an incomplete list of the things you can do on the Super Bowl Boulevard: 

-Aforementioned toboggan ride down artificial hill

-Film yourself dancing around in a fake living room

-With the aid of a green screen, pretend to be interviewed by a talking M&M

-Run through an obstacle course like a real athlete at some kind of tryout

-Kick a football like a real NFL kicker

-Run through a tunnel with a bunch of lights and smoke and sounds, just like a real NFL player running through a stadium tunnel to reach the field

-Jump onto a pile of soft rubber with a football

-Whatever it is that these guys are doing:

-Get your photo taken with a statue that resembles an NFL player’s body so you can pretend to be the head of a football player

-Get your photo taken while wearing a helmet and holding a football in front of a fun backdrop that says “TOUCHDOWN”:

-Get your photo taken with the Vince Lombardi trophy

-Get your photo taken in front of the giant Roman numerals/the giant television screens/one of the mascots walking around Times Square/whatever else you see

-Go onstage and compete in a trivia quiz against other fans

-Play Xbox

-Fill out a form to enter a drawing for a free car

-Get autographs from NFL players

-Vote for Fantasy Player of the Year

-Get a free slice of Papa John’s pizza

-Just kind of mill around and enjoy the sights and sounds of Times Square, like these folks:

With the exception of “milling around,” most of those things involve waiting in line for a long, long time. On Wednesday night the line to get your photo taken with the Vince Lombardi trophy snaked through a building and out into the street, the line for the toboggan ride was on par with what you’d see at Disneyland during peak hours, and the line for the free pizza defied logic: that slice was worth about a buck, getting it involved standing in the cold for at least half an hour—surely that wasn’t a good tradeoff?

“Standing in the cold for at least half an hour” is, actually, a decent description of the Super Bowl Boulevard experience as a whole. The activities are all kind of hokey, like things you’d find at a county fair somewhere in the middle of America, but with the temperature hovering in the 20s, whatever homespun joy you could get from waiting in line to pretend to be in a living room was more or less wiped out by the constant voice in your head going, I’m cold I’m cold I’mcoldImcoldcoldcold.

If it were just a chintzy outdoor event held in the wrong season, I imagine it wouldn’t merit any attention: it’d be just one of those odd things New Yorkers walk through without taking their iPod buds out of their ears. But thanks to all that corporate money, every element of it is fantastically expensive and overwrought: the omnipresent screens, the sets where the talking heads of the NFL Network and ESPN are filmed on location, the spotlights scanning through the sky, the yellow-jacketed employees and volunteers of the Super Bowl Committee huddling together for warmth and steering the occasional lost tourist, shivering cops directing traffic, police helicopters droning overhead, human mannequins dancing in the windows of the store selling what seemed like extremely expensive yoga pants…

It’s like the set of Batman Forever. It’s like a massively complex practical joke played by a few rich men in suits who never laugh. It’s like one of George Saunders’s near-future dystopias come to life. It’s like those times when you take some drugs and then spend long nervous hours waiting for the trip to kick in. In one five-minute span I walked past a truck wearing a helmet:

…then wandered into Macy’s, where a pop-up NFL shop was selling hand-painted helmets for $5,750: 

All of this stuff is fantastical and magical and clearly the result of a painstaking process. The Super Bowl Boulevard, like Times Square itself, is a towering feat of technological innovation that stands as a monument to culture; simultaneously it’s incredibly lame and dull and gives you a headache if you’re inside it for too long. It’s essentially a multimillion-dollar theme park built for people to take selfies in front of.

In the past, humanity has constructed elaborate tributes to the gods, or to national heroes, or to honor the spirit of great tragedies or triumphs. The Super Bowl Boulevard is a tribute to really liking the same sport that everyone else in America likes, which might be part of the problem with it. If you have any doubts that this event—like this country—takes the NFL altogether more seriously than it deserves, just walk into the front hall of Macy’s:

Every year, more money and veneration and effort gets poured into the Super Bowl, and every year it makes less and less sense. Every year, more anticipation and branding gets built around THE football game until all that remains visible is a lot of glittering, incomprehensible graphics streaking across a series of screens while everyone cheers because they’re supposed to.    

This isn’t to say that these people are rubes or that the corporations behind the screens are evil. One odd thing about the Super Bowl Boulevard is that very little is actually on sale—most of the activities are free. These corporations aren’t after your money (which they already have anyway), they want some positive brand awareness, meaning they want everyone to have a good time. It’s just that “having a good time,” after going through the meat grinder of focus groups and meetings and whatever else happens at the largest companies in the world, eventually came to mean “watching a massive television screen only it’s outdoors, it’s freezing, and there are cops everywhere.”

On Saturday night, Blondie will play the Boulevard, which sounds like the only part of the whole event that an ordinary New Yorker might be interested in. After that, the trucks are going to pack up the screens and the LED displays and the television sets and Times Square can go back to its baseline level of branded intensity. Next year, when the Super Bowl comes to Glendale, Arizona, something more garish and more terrifying with even better branding will appear there. These things never get any smaller.

@HCheadle