The bigger an event is, the more pervasive and long-lasting its accompanying myths are. This is especially true of the Super Bowl, the one day of the year when a billion people gather together to eat avocados, go to the bathroom at the same time, game the stock market and engage in questionable behavior with ladies of the night.
Or do we?
With Super Bowl XLVIII taking place this Sunday, it’s a good time to examine some of the myths and legends surrounding the so-called “Big Game” and see if there’s any truth to any of them. These are a few of the most popular ones, with many more to be found on Snopes and other sites.
MYTH: Sex traffickers bring uncountable numbers of young girls to the Super Bowl site for the purposes of prostitution. This is a story that latches on to almost every major sporting event, including the World Cup and the Olympics. But it’s especially true regarding the Super Bowl, which Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in what could either be called warning or grandstanding, called “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”
But is it actually true? In a sense, it depends on what you read, because the stories are all over the map. The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, Reuters and ABC are currently running breathless pieces about New Jersey officials preparing for an influx of “400,000 men” and “tens of thousands” of sex workers, many of them children. This is an especially worrisome Big Game, they say, because of New Jersey’s problems with international sex trafficking of young girls.
But there are just as many dissenting voices, saying there really is no massive influx of prostitutes and no uptick in trafficking or arrests related to the Super Bowl. The Wire, Village Voice, Snopes, LA Weekly and Dallas Observer have all run stories debunking this as a politically opportunistic moral panic that doesn’t have data to support it.
When faced with conflicting stories about whether something actually exists, focus on the numbers. And the numbers we have support the naysayers. No recent Super Bowl has had anything resembling the vice-related chaos that local officials prepared for. According to the available data, the 2010 game saw 13 non-local prostitution arrests, the 2011 game had just two trafficking arrests and both the 2012 and 2013 games had fewer than 100 prostitution arrests, with only two trafficking victims each year being found.
There is similarly no statistical evidence to support any kind of vice explosion related to either the World Cup or Olympics. So the New Jersey police can probably but their resources to better use this time around.
MYTH: Domestic abuse skyrockets on Super Bowl Sunday due to husbands taking out their football or gambling related frustration on their wives. Just like human trafficking, domestic violence is absolutely nothing to take lightly. But it’s also not something to drench in hyperbole and panic. And like the “hordes of hookers” that don’t descend on host cities, the legions of men beating their spouses after the game don’t appear to exist either.
As with most deeply-ingrained myths, this one has a specific origin point: a January 1993 press conference held in advance of the Super Bowl that year by Sheila Kuehl, a lawyer and former child actress who would run for the California State Assembly the next year. Kuehl called the Super Bowl the worst day of the year for violence against women and declared that according to a study at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, “police reports of beatings and hospital admissions in northern Virginia rose 40 percent after games won by the Redskins during the 1988-89 season.” Interestingly, the full text of the study didn’t support Kuehl’s proclamation and wasn’t even about the Super Bowl itself. But “40 percent” became the key number that the rest of the story revolved around.
The next day, Lenore Walker, the author of The Battered Woman, appeared on “Good Morning America” and claimed to have a ten-year statistical record showing a sharp increase in domestic abuse on Super Bowl Sundays. Walker never made her statistics public and cited no research of any kind during her appearance, but it didn’t matter. A flurry of newspaper and TV stories followed, all of which claimed that phones at women’s shelters rang off the hook on Super Bowl Sunday, and that women everywhere were in grave danger. So a statistically unprovable increase in violence become the most popular football-related moral panic of the 90’s.
However, no police department, women’s shelter, hotline or non-profit devoted to domestic abuse has shown any kind of meaningful uptick in reports of violence during the Super Bowl. Subsequent research and reporting hasn’t found one either. Thankfully, the numbers just aren’t there, and the legend is more hype than anything else. For more on how the myth took hold, and the motivation behind those who disseminated the panic, read the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry that outlines its whole history.
Myth: The entire nation experiences a water shortage at halftime of the Super Bowl, due to millions of people doing their business at the same time. Television history is full of “event programming” that supposedly strained the waste-disposal infrastructure of America due to everyone flushing their toilet when the program was over. But there’s no statistical evidence that water becomes scarce at certain times during the game, and no real reason for it to. Every Super Bowl has numerous, long commercial breaks, and with the advent of DVR, many people now watch the game on a slight delay. So any uptick in bathroom usage (and it does look like there’s a bit of one) is nowhere near enough to strain your local sewers.
The origin of the this myth appears to be a water main burst in Salt Lake City during the Super Bowl in 1984. However, that had nothing to do with the game, and everything to do with old water mains sometimes bursting during cold weather. Feel free to do your natural detoxing at halftime, or any time you please.
Myth: Guacamole-loving Americans consume two-thirds of all avocados sold nationwide during the Super Bowl. This isn’t even close to true. The California Avocado Commission (I assure you this is a real thing) says the big game accounts for about 5% of nationwide avocado sales, or
eight about 79 million pounds, as of 2011. This pales in comparison to is about ten percent less than Cinco de Mayo. which accounts for almost ten times that number.
EDITED 1/28/2014: I goofed here. The estimate for the 2013 Super Bowl was 79 million pounds of avocados and 87 million pounds for Cinco de Mayo. The numbers are slightly different in other sources, but overall are about the same. Overall consumption in 2013 was estimated to be around 1.5 billion, so the Super Bowl is 5% and Cinco de Mayo is a little more. But not ten times more. The above has been corrected to reflect that, in case you care.
Myth: One billion people worldwide will watch the Super Bowl. TV announcers love to toss around this huge number, showing the inescapable and world-conquering nature of the NFL. But it’s not remotely accurate. While it is true that the countries where the Super Bowl is broadcast have a total population of over one billion, they aren’t all watching the game. Not even close. Media sources estimated that about 164 million fans around the world watched the 2013 game, with 108 million in the US. That number is actually down from the past two years.
As a point of comparison, the 2013 UEFA Champions League final, between two German soccer teams, drew about 150 million viewers worldwide. This represents the biggest game of the year in the biggest sports federation in the world, of a sport played and watched by far more people than American football. So if that can’t draw close to a billion viewers, there’s no way the Super Bowl can.
The only television event that’s ever gotten even close to the hallowed “one billion” marker is another soccer game, the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, which might have drawn as many as 700 million viewers around the world.
Myth: For all the hype and hoopla, the Super Bowl itself usually isn’t a very good game, and is often an uninvolving blowout. Obviously, this is entirely subjective. If your team won a game that any sane person would have turned off, it was a good game, while if your team lost a game that was 60 minutes of edge of your seat insanity, it was a bad game. And no matter what, if you won money, you had a good game.
But it’s easy to see how a game that’s hyped relentlessly can be a letdown. Any sport where a year’s worth of game play ends in a single contest has that potential. The aforementioned 2010 World Cup final, while watched by countless millions, was a sloppy and slow passing showcase with one goal in 120 minutes of play. And there have been a lot of Super Bowl games where the outcome was decided halfway through.
But while the 90’s saw a string of bad Big Games (eight out of ten were decided by double figure margins, with several won by over 30 points), recent contests have been more exciting. Five of the last six Super Bowls were won by 7 or fewer points, with 9 out of 14 games since the year 2000 playing out the same way.
So while the sample size is small, recent trends indicate this particular game is more likely to be close than a laugher.
No matter who you’re rooting for, or if you couldn’t care less about football and just watch for the commercials, enjoy the game. And stay off the roads afterwards, as car crashes spike in the hours after Super Bowl. That’s a myth that’s entirely too true.