It sounded, at first, like the assignment of a lifetime. “So Super Bowl 50 is coming up,” my editor told me, “and we want you to watch every single Super Bowl ever and write about it.” The words were barely out of his mouth before I blurted, “I’ll do it, this is the best idea ever, I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” I love football and watch it religiously. I’ve blown more than a few Monday deadlines at Slate because I spent my Sundays watching football instead of working. Now, I had lucked my way into an assignment that would require me to sit on my ass for hours at a time, eating Goldfish and watching football. It sounded great. I was in.
And then, almost immediately, I wished I was out. What was it like to watch every Super Bowl for a Slate article? It was horrible!
I started to feel like the boy whose father catches him smoking a cigarette and forces him to smoke the entire carton as punishment. Football is fun, and the Super Bowl is fun (even though the game itself is very often not), but watching 49 Super Bowl games in succession is no fun at all. What I didn’t realize at the time was that when watching football becomes something you have to do for work, it stops being fun and starts being … work. And I hate work!
There have been 49 Super Bowls—or XLIX, if you prefer. Each game lasts at least two hours if you don’t watch pregame, halftime, and the commercials. If you do, those two hours can easily become four. That’s a potential 200 hours of viewing time, which doesn’t include the time spent hunting down the video links, hunting down new video links after the old ones get removed for copyright violations, pausing the game to take notes, pausing again to double-check those notes, and waiting for the video feed to buffer.
When I accepted the assignment, I didn’t stop and think about what it would mean to sit and watch between 150 and 200 hours of video. It’s not something that can be done casually. The project demanded my full attention, and it’s hard to devote three or four hours to a football game, in the middle of the day, while you’re being besieged by emails, tweets, phone calls, hunger pangs, other assignments, and the like.
It’s especially hard to devote this much time to a football game if the game isn’t very good, which most of the Super Bowls were not. And it’s especially hard if you’ve got a book coming out at the same time.
I started off thinking I’d watch one game per day, and, in retrospect, if I could have maintained that pace, that would have been the best way to do this. But I didn’t maintain that pace, of course. Life intervened, as it tends to do, and before I knew it January was here and I had only watched like 10 games or so. So I started to binge-watch. I’d devote entire weekends to sitting and watching old Super Bowls, one after another, for 10 or 12 hours at a time. This is a terrible way to watch football. One game starts blending into the next. Pretty soon you can’t tell them apart.
I remember very little about many of the games that I watched. My notes, which started off meticulous, soon became terse. “24:17: Good play.” “1:03:45: What???” Stuff like that. I had to keep them short, because in the end this project became a race against the clock. I had to force myself to watch two or three games a day as January turned to February. Instead of preparing for my book readings, I was frantically trying to ingest old Raiders games. “I can’t believe your brain hasn’t turned to pudding yet,” my editor told me last week. “It’s 100 percent pudding!” I snapped.
I eventually finished watching them all, and my brain eventually depuddinged. Now that it’s over, I guess I still think the story was a great idea. But I don’t think I’ll accept any more assignments that turn football into mandatory viewing. I prefer to watch it on my own shiftless terms.