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ESPN The Magazine: NFL Nation
ESPN The Magazine

As the Super Bowl looms on the horizon, The Magazine delves into NFL Nation -- the world's only sports superpower, a society unto itself. Here's an excerpt.

This Super Sunday, take a minute, just one minute, to feast. Not on the six-foot hero leaking all over your coffee table, but on the spectacle of those gathered to watch with you. The next-door neighbor, who tosses cereal boxes to his kids to school them on Kurt Warner. The cranky uncle, who insists Gale Sayers broke tackles better than Marshall Faulk. The fantasy nut, who can't stop muttering about Peyton Manning. Your best pal's girlfriend, who needs a safety before the end of the quarter to win her office pool. The dorky guy from your poker game who's looking forward to U2's halftime gig. And those poor and tired refugees -- Cowboys and Lions fans -- you've graciously agreed to shelter for the evening.

Yes, friends, no holiday brings us together quite like the Super Bowl: The Big Game surpasses even New Year's Eve as the top at-home party event of the year. And all those gatherings explain why sponsors are willing to shell out more than $50 million collectively each year on promotions linked to the Big Game, making it the country's biggest marketing event.

They're also the reason Fox charges $2 million for a 30-second spot during this year's contest, by far the highest-rated of all TV programs. But financial stats tell only part of the story. While it's amazing that sales of big-screen TVs quintuple during Super Bowl week, it's doubly impressive that more women watch the Super Bowl than the Academy Awards, or that nine of the 10 most-viewed programs in television history have ended with the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy.

The Super Bowl brings us together like no other event because pro football brings us together like no other sport. More fans follow the NFL than any other league -- football first passed baseball as Americans' favorite sport in Gallup surveys in 1972, around the time Monday Night Football was becoming a national sensation and Richard Nixon called in a play to the Redskins -- and the NFL, according to a 2000 Gallup survey, has a higher percentage of avid followers among its fans than any other league. This season, 200 countries will have televised NFL programming; only 189 belong to the United Nations.

Or consider this: On any weekend, 110 million Americans go to church; 125 million watch the NFL.

In fact, while David Stern has retooled the NBA into a smooth multinational corporation and Bud Selig treats MLB the way protomonopolist Andrew Carnegie ran U.S. Steel, Paul Tagliabue & Co. have created far more than a business. The NFL is so outsized in its scope, so imperial in its ambitions, so important to its fans, that it's more like a society unto itself.

Call it NFL Nation, and count yourself a taxpayer, loyally paying your share to the treasury for the privilege of partaking in the pageantry of Game Day. "Every Super Bowl Sunday we are reminded of the immense impact of our sport," says Tagliabue. "It usually hits me around the end of the national anthem. That's an incredible moment."

And once you see the NFL as a nation, you begin to see that as much as players are world-class athletes or entertainers, they are also members of a complex society, fitting into roles as diverse as the model citizen and the rebel. After all, this nation not only has its own national holiday three or four weeks after New Year's, it also has its own government, with a presidency and Supreme Court rolled into one office (the commissioner's); its own cabinet (the Management Council); a judicial system (referees); and legislators (the owners). NFL Nation has its own constitution (league constitution and bylaws), minimum-wage law (the collective bargaining agreement), labor force (players), civil laws (the players' personal conduct code), law enforcers (NFL Security), even a potential "51st state" (Arena Football), and a vast public to keep happy.

And don't forget its own anthem ("Are You Ready for Some Football?").

Excerpted from the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine. A selection of NFL Nation stories will appear on between now and Super Sunday.

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