Every year, over 100 million people tune into the Super Bowl to watch America’s biggest sports spectacle unfold. If some good football gets played along the way, even better. Sure, the event has a few thrills, but it’s the things we can’t predict that get people talking the next day. The Nipplegates and the Left Sharks. These unlikely events strike viral gold in the eyes of our reality-obsessed, meme-loving culture and the search for the next one gives viewers something else to fixate on during the game.
Here are some of the all-time classics.
The Moment: The “Wardrobe Malfunction” That Undid America
Few people remember who played in Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. What the 140 million who did tune in remember, however, is the Halftime Show — namely, when television audiences got a glimpse, for 9/16th of a second, of Janet Jackson’s breast. The event, which became known as “Nipplegate,” sent some Americans scrambling for their TiVo remotes to rewind and rewatch. It actually became the most rewound moment in TiVo history — the 21st century equivalent to what Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs was to VHS. It also sent other Americans scrambling for pearls to clutch and complaint forms to fill out.
The Wardrobe Malfunction set off an FCC domino effect that 1) Led all live television events to air with a 5-second delay and 2) The proposal and passing of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which gives fines and penalties to networks for “the broadcast of obscene, indecent, or profane language.” Watchdog elements of TV viewing that are still in place today.
The Moment: Commercials Became A Cultural Art Form
The most lasting memory from Super Bowl XVIII also had nothing to do with the game. In this case, it’s a commercial. That’s when Apple dropped a 60-second spot that is widely considered one of the best TV commercials in Super Bowl history: 1984.
The success of this commercial was unprecedented, not only critically since the Ridley Scott-directed spot won the top prize at Cannes, but more notably because it generated millions in free publicity and word-of-mouth as a cinematic spectacle. This set off what has become an American cultural institution: watching Super Bowls to see the commercials. The favorite pastime of people who give zero f*cks about the game and a major reason 30-second spots are going for over $5 million for Super Bowl LI.
The Moment: When Super Bowl Counterprogramming Became A Thing
There have always been other things that you could watch on Super Bowl Sunday. Also nature provides a consistent alternative, but the trend toward actually interesting (and specifically targeted) counter-programming is relatively new. And the Puppy Bowl, that collection of cute yet unadopted dogs that go toe-to-toe with America’s biggest sporting event, was a notable pioneer.
The tradition has now grown way beyond puppies. Now we have the Kitten Bowl on Hallmark Channel, the Fish Bowl on NatGeo, and entertaining asides such as Key & Peele’s livestream play-by-play on Squarespace to satisfy the urge of seeing something that isn’t the Super Bowl.
The Moment: When The Super Bowl Coin Flip Became A Bet-Worthy Spectacle
The first 11 Super Bowl coin flips were done by officials off camera to little or no fanfare. Then, at Super Bowl XII in 1978, Chicago Bears great Red Grange actually tossed the coin for the very first time, adding celebrity intrigue to the mix. Not long after the cameras came and the NFL marketing machine morphed this harmless event into a spectacle.
Naturally, America and Las Vegas took notice. Now, you can bet said Super Bowl coin flip, amongst other things. This includes the over/under length of the National Anthem and what color Gatorade will get poured on the winning coach. There’s actually a mandatory dress rehearsal so referees don’t screw it up.
By the way, if you believe that the coin toss is a 50/50 proposition, the tails people are laughing at you. In 50 Super Bowls thus far it’s Heads 24/Tails 26.
The Moment: The Super Bowl Shuffle Mesmerized Us
You know the old adage: All actors want to be rock stars and rock stars, actors. Well, athletes want to be both. But the reality is that most athletes – and especially NFL players – who try to rise above the game with an acting or music career usually fail spectacularly. Suffice to say, for every Alex Karras (Blazing Saddles) and Bubba Smith (The Police Academy movies), there are 50 Brian Bosworth’s in Stone Cold.
But when the ’85 Chicago Bears gathered for “The Super Bowl Shuffle” to promote their swagger and dreams to make Super Bowl XX (ultimately for charity), American pop culture was put on notice.
Between Jim McMahon’s trademark shades and William “The Fridge” Perry’s lumbering charm, this song became the anthem of one the NFL’s greatest teams. Nevermind the less than stellar rap skills that were on display. America loved it, which was evident when the song sold a half million units and peaked at #41 on the Billboard music charts. More importantly for this story, however, it also helped provide the blueprint for how NFL athletes could parlay their game fame into another platform, influencing their brands with extracurricular activities, making money and bad art along the way. Yes, I’m talking to you Deion Sanders and LT.
The Moment: When Angry Eli Made The Rounds
We’ve all heard of sibling rivalry, right? Well, when Peyton Manning won his final game as a pro last year (Super Bowl 50), his brother Eli got caught with his proverbial pants down while looking, let’s say, unenthused by his brother catching up to him in total Super Bowl wins. Was Eli jealous or just suffering the effects of a bad fish dinner? We may never know. But what we do know is that every big game brings the power to generate the meme of all memes the next day (especially when it comes to people in shark costumes) — moments that can’t be hidden because human emotions overpower self-awareness. Plus, cameras are everywhere, so there’s that.
What does this all prove? America doesn’t need a thrilling TD grab or a bone-rattling hit to make its Super Bowl complete. Just give us a jealous, angry sibling and/or an unenthusiastic shark and we’re good to go.