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9 questions about the Super Bowl you were too embarrassed to ask

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is the purest distillation of America that there is. It's brutallucrativetawdry, spectacular, amazing, and full of delicious snacks. It's the one moment when we as a nation truly come together to reflect on our greatest achievements as a society — television, innovative chicken and cheese products, and over-the-top marketing. This year, there's also going to be a damn fine football game on. What's more, this year's Super Bowl — Super Bowl XLIX — will be the last to feature the event's signature Roman numerals. Next year, we'll be stuck with boring old Super Bowl 50.

But as the social pressure to watch a football game — or at least be in the presence of others who are watching — mounts, you may find yourself with some nagging questions. This is particularly true if you're not a football fan but you are bowing to social pressure and pretending to be one for the day. We have the answers.

1) What time is the Super Bowl?

(Super Bowl XLIX Host Committee)

Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 pm Eastern time on February 1, 2015 on NBC. There will be Super-Bowl-related programming starting at noon Eastern, and the actual playing tends to start a bit after the scheduled kickoff time.

In addition, NBC will be making its complete coverage — including pregame programming and the halftime show — available to stream for free online.

"What time is the Super Bowl" is also an important media industry joke. The Huffington Post gained a lot of attention (and derision) for annually running an article with that headline, designed to attract clicks from people Googling for the information: otherwise known as search optimization (SEO). Media scolds do not approve of the role SEO plays in the modern journalistic ecosystem. Back in the real world, television schedules (like weather forecasts, sports box scores, stock listings, and other commodity information) that tell you what time different shows air are actually a traditional feature of most daily print newspapers.

2) Where is the Super Bowl being played?

Super Bowl XLIX will be played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona (which is near Phoenix).

This is the home stadium of the Arizona Cardinals NFL team, not a stadium where a university-affiliated team plays. The University of Phoenix is a for-profit college that bought naming rights to the stadium for publicity purposes. Super Bowl XLII was also played at University of Phoenix Stadium.

A unique attribute of University of Phoenix Stadium is that it features natural grass in a domed environment. They make this work by storing the grass outside and then moving the entire playing surface indoors for games. It looks pretty cool:

The Super Bowl rotates between different arenas for several reasons. The backdrop for the entire thing, however, is that pro football is so overwhelmingly popular in the United States that the game can reliably be sold out at high prices without it being held in the home city of either of the teams that is playing. That's a huge advantage for the NFL: the freedom to choose a site far in advance greatly facilitates planning and makes possible the whole larger spectacle that exists around the big game.

The ability to vary the location, meanwhile, provides the NFL with additional leverage in the endless quest for more stadium subsidies. Only the most state-of-the-art arenas will be considered.

3) Who is playing in the Super Bowl?

Tom Brady (Maddy Meyer/Getty)

Super Bowl XLIX features the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. The Seahawks won last year's Super Bowl playing against the Denver Broncos.

For the Seahawks to repeat as winners would be a considerable achievement. Only eight teams have won twice in a row, and the majority of the repeats happened at times when the league was smaller. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is one of only two black quarterbacks ever to have won a Super Bowl — the other is Doug Williams, who led DC's football team to victory in Super Bowl XXII.

In some ways, a Patriots win would be even more impressive. Under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots have won six AFC championships and three Super Bowls since 2002. They are by far the most successful NFL franchise of the current era, and a fourth Super Bowl win would cement that legacy. Brady would tie with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw to become the third quarterback with four Super Bowl wins to his name.

4) Why are Super Bowl commercials such a big deal?

Super Bowl ads are a big deal because they're extraordinarily expensive — $4.5 million for a 30-second spot this year — and Super Bowl ads are extraordinarily expensive because of the intersection of two trends.

One is the tremendous popularity of professional football. Lots of people watch the game.

The other is the declining popularity of everything that isn't live sports. The highest-rated non-Super-Bowl broadcast of all time was the 1983 M*A*S*H finale, which 60 percent of households watched. After that is a 1980 Dallas episode, and the 1977 Roots finale. In the modern world, with audiences fragmented by cable television, distracted by the internet, and time-shifting with DVR and on-demand services, it simply isn't possible for anything other than live events to reach very large segments of the population. This makes the Super Bowl a unique marketing opportunity that commands a uniquely high price.

Because Super Bowl ads are so expensive, companies that buy them tend to take the opportunity to roll out signature ads and new campaigns, which heightens the attention paid to the advertisements.

Are the ads worth the money? A team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin's Eau Claire campus has found some evidence that they may be. Films that are advertised during the Super Bowl see a 40 percent boost in ticket sales, and publicly-traded companies that advertise during the game see their stock overperform the S&P 500 in the short term.

5) Does the winner literally get a super bowl?

The Yale Bowl (Joe Shlabotnik)

No. The winner gets the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. The origin of the Super Bowl name is somewhat tangled, but in brief:

Yale University's football team has long played in a bowl-shaped arena known as the Yale Bowl (not to be confused with Yale Bowls, which sells actual bowls). In 1923, a similarly shaped arena was constructed in Pasadena, California and dubbed the "Rose Bowl." Pasadena had been the site of an important postseason college football match for about 20 years before the construction of the Rose Bowl, and once the new arena was complete the match became known by the same name as the arena. From there, the tradition spread of referring to postseason college football games as "bowls."

Meanwhile, in 1920 a number of professional football teams banded together to form the National Football League. In 1960, a rival professional football league — the American Football League — was established. In 1966, the two leagues agreed to merge. The merger was not complete until 1970, but starting in 1967 the winner of the NFL championship tournament played the winner of the AFL championship tournament in a championship game. Once the merger was finalized, pro football was reorganized so that the old NFL became the National Football Conference and the old AFL became the American Football Conference, and the whole thing combined was the National Football League.

The Super Bowl is played between the AFC champion and the NFC champion, and determines the overall league champion.

6) Who should I root for in the Super Bowl?

Not Boston > Boston (Christian Petersen/Getty)

You should root for the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots cheat and then they cheat some more. More to the point, Boston sports fans are officially The Worst. It's on Urban Dictionary and everything, so it cannot be denied. The last thing these jerks need is another championship.

It is true that Seattle coach Pete Carroll, in his previous role as the University of Southern California's football coach, also seems to be a cheater. But the rule Carroll was caught violating was the NCAA's unjust rule against football players receiving monetary compensation for their work, so it's a lesser offense compared to the Patriots' sins — which involve illicit spying and, perhaps, equipment tampering.

In addition, the Seahawks' fans are not Boston sports fans. Read, for example, Mina Kimes' charming account of how Seahawks fandom brought her closer together with her father. A Boston version of this story would just be two drunk people yelling "Yankees suck!!" to nobody in particular.

7) What are the rules of football?

Football has a lot of rules. But here are the basics:

  • The game starts with a kickoff. After halftime, there is a kickoff. After any team scores, there is a kickoff. In a kickoff, one team kicks the ball to the other team, which catches it and tries to run it forward.
  • When you have the ball, you get four tries ("downs") to move the ball at least ten yards forward to the "first down line" (helpfully marked in yellow on TV broadcasts). If you succeed, you have a first down. If you fail, the other team gets the ball at that location.
  • In a standard play, the quarterback will either attempt to throw the ball down the field to a receiver or else hand the ball to a running back. There are a variety of unorthodox "trick plays" that can be attempted, but they are very risky and rarely used. The combination of rarity and risk makes these plays especially exciting.
  • Typically, a team only makes three efforts to get a first down. On the fourth try, the normal strategy is to either try to kick a field goal or else to punt (i.e., kick) the ball to the other team to make sure that the opposition gets the ball further back. In a memorable paper, economist David Romer argues that teams kick way too often.
  • If you manage to move the ball all the way to the end of the field, you score a touchdown worth 6 points. (You also get to dance, but "excessive celebration" will get you penalized.)
  • After a touchdown, teams will normally try for a special extra-point kick — it's essentially the same as kicking a field goal but you only get one point. On some occasions, a team will instead attempt a two-point conversion in which you get a single chance to move the ball into the end zone and obtain two points for success.
  • Outside the context of a touchdown, if you successfully kick the ball between the goal posts, that's a field goal worth three points.

The complete rulebook is here if you happen to be very bored. Note that even very serious football fans often don't fully understand all the different aspects of the rules, whose details change a bit from year to year within the basic framework.

8) Who will win the Super Bowl?

Analysts are very conflicted about this year's Super Bowl, which lacks a clear favorite. The betting in Las Vegas mostly favors New England, but by just about the smallest margin possible. The two contenders both had 12-4 records in the regular season, and no analysis — based on strength of schedule, point differential, or sophisticated mathematics — gives either team a clear edge. Both teams are experienced and led by players who've been in the Super Bowl before. Any game can turn into a tedious blowout, but the odds favor this being an exciting one.

If you want to spice things up with more gambling, the Super Bowl also offers an orgy of prop betting in which you wager on things like which team will score first, which team will score last, who will win the coin toss at the beginning of the game, how many interceptions will be thrown, etc.

9) How can you live with yourself glossing over the concussions issue?

I can't. Please watch the great video above, which Joseph Stromberg did on this subject, and read his article.

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