- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Welcome back to the Super Bowl as we've traditionally known it.
Last year's game, despite its placement in party-friendly New Orleans, was a rather somber affair. The terrorist attacks of September 11 cast a pall over Fox's coverage. The network's tone was not inappropriate, but despite the thrilling late-game heroics of the New England Patriots, the game drew the second-worst Super Bowl rating since 1993.
All of that is now history. Today's Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego marks a welcome return to the game's usual fun and frivolity. John Madden is back in the booth, this time in good spirits and with Al Michaels as part of the ABC Sports crew. All the latest technical bells and whistles will be in use, including microphones on Oakland receiver Jerry Rice and Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, and a SkyCam over the field. And with a tight game between the Buccaneers and Raiders widely expected, so should a rather strong rating.
To be certain, world events that colored the entire feel of last year's Super Bowl are in no way resolved. The looming threat of war with Iraq and heavy security at Qualcomm Stadium speak clearly to that.
But the last year has been rather kind to the NFL, its ledger and its business partners. Overall TV ratings improved 5 percent and further distanced the league from the rest of network television's offerings. Records were set again for both total attendance and per-game draw. Sponsorship dollars continued to grow. A contract extension with DirecTV more than triples the NFL's annual take for its out-of-market TV package. The play on the field was entertaining, too, as overtimes occurred in record numbers and two-thirds of the league was still in playoff contention in December.
In short, the NFL again proved its dominance not only in the sports world but in all of popular culture, it did so in a fairly weak economy and that has left everyone connected to the league in good spirits.
"Just look at the ratings," said ABC Sports president Howard Katz. "I don't think there's anything in the entire sports landscape, except maybe the Olympics, that rises to the level of what we have week in and week out."
Today's Super Bowl also provides some welcome relief to ABC after an enigmatic year for "Monday Night Football." After the much ballyhooed entry of Madden to the "MNF" booth, the network's schedule featured 14 of 17 games decided by 10 or more points, including a St. Louis-San Francisco clash in Week 17 that meant nothing to the playoff picture and generated the worst single-game rating in series history.
"MNF" viewership increased 1 percent for the season. And though each ratings point is worth more than it was a year ago because of the increasing U.S. population, the average "MNF" rating fell a scant one-tenth of one point, and everyone latched onto that single figure.
"In terms of a slate of results, I don't know when we've had a worse one," said play-by-play man Michaels. "But this year was so creatively satisfying, such a joy."
Yet ABC certainly is hoping for a close contest today.
"I'm a law of averages guy. I don't even want to think in terms of [another blowout]," Michaels said.
ABC's pregame show will be four hours long, an hour more than the previous two years, and generate an expected advertising payday of more than $160 million. And that doesn't include another three hours of pregame coverage and profit starting this morning on corporate sister ESPN. Planned features on ABC include stories on the late Johnny Unitas, the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, Terrell Davis and Samoans in the NFL.
Add in a heavy slate of musical acts scattered throughout the broadcast, and you have a tried-and-true formula for Super Bowl success.
"Something tells me we're going to get dealt a royal flush here," Michaels said. "It's such a compelling matchup. There are so many great stories. I think we're in for something as a good as the weather here [in San Diego]."

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