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Did you really think that the Kansas City Chiefs were not going to win the Super Bowl? It’s true that they struggled offensively this season, and entered the playoffs as a wild card, forcing them to compete in an extra game while the San Francisco 49ers enjoyed a first-round bye. It’s true that the Chiefs were also technically the underdogs in the Super Bowl, with oddsmakers generally favoring the 49ers. And, yes, the Chiefs were behind for much of the game, down by seven points going into halftime. Every time they started to look alive, their momentum was thwarted. A fifty-two-yard pass from the quarterback Patrick Mahomes to the wide receiver Mecole Hardman was immediately wiped out by a fumble on the next play, with the 49ers recovering the ball. At the very start of the second half, as the Chiefs were looking to begin their comeback, they fumbled the ball again, but this time they were able to recover it for a twelve-yard loss. “What a brutal beginning to the second half for Kansas City!” an announcer said. The drive concluded, two plays later, with Mahomes throwing an interception.
And yet the Chiefs’ victory felt inevitable, in the same way that their presence in the Super Bowl was inevitable. As the sports analyst (and former Chiefs tight end) Tony Gonzalez reminded us at the start of Sunday night’s game, “Four Super Bowls in five years.” (In 2021, the Chiefs lost Super Bowl LV, but they won all the others, including the 2023 game, in which they beat the Philadelphia Eagles by three points.) Gonzalez went on, “This is a dynasty in the making.”
The N.F.L. loves a good dynasty, even if no one else does. The narrative at the heart of this year’s Super Bowl was that the Chiefs were en route to supplanting the legacy of the New England Patriots—the only other team, aside from the Buffalo Bills, to go to four Super Bowls in five years. (The Bills famously lost four in a row, which is why the Patriots were the more appropriate comparison.) The announcers made the idea of the Chiefs becoming the Patriots sound like a good thing, seemingly forgetting that the Pats, for all their indomitability, are one of the most detested franchises in sports, alongside the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Yankees. And so the real Super Bowl this year was Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady, with Mahomes being to LeBron James as Brady is to Michael Jordan. Funnily enough, we’ve already seen Mahomes and Brady go head to head: it was the 2021 Super Bowl that the Chiefs lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady and the Bucs won handily; the final score was 31–9. Mahomes didn’t score a single touchdown.
This year, it was easy to come away with the impression that the whole world was rooting for the Chiefs. The annoyance of Kansas City’s “dynasty in the making” had been alleviated, somewhat, by the relationship between Travis Kelce, the Chiefs’ tight end, and Taylor Swift, who likes to sing about great American dynasties herself. The pairing has been framed as one of the best things to happen to the N.F.L. in years; one sentimental Cetaphil ad depicts a young girl who is suddenly able to bond with her father over football. During the game, the camera cut to Super Bowl parties overseas, which aligned with Eras Tour stops: São Paulo, Brazil; Sydney, Australia; and Munich, Germany, where an international audience could be seen, rather jarringly, doing the Chiefs’ signature “tomahawk chop” hand gesture. But at the beginning of the game, when the Chiefs first ran out onto the field, they were booed by the people in the stands. It was a 49ers crowd, even though you’d never know it by looking at your television—both teams wear shades of red and yellow. (The Niners wear gold, because, you know: the gold rush.)
One thing you could easily tell from your television is that there were many celebrities in attendance. It didn’t hurt that the game took place in Las Vegas, at Allegiant Stadium, the home of the Raiders. Las Vegas didn’t have any major-league teams until 2017, in part because of the city’s association with sports betting, but it now has N.F.L., hockey, and women’s basketball teams, and a baseball team—the A’s—is reportedly on the way. (We’ve also apparently stopped pretending to be worried about the risks of gambling, given the slew of Super Bowl commercials in the past couple years that has promoted online-betting apps.) There were shots of the Bellagio fountains, the city’s half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, and the Sphere, which looked like a giant American flag-themed dog ball as Reba McEntire sang the national anthem. During lulls in the game—there were quite a few—the camera dwelled on the star-studded stands: Lady Gaga, in a 49ers jacket. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, in more neutral gear (the latter wore a varsity jacket), sitting next to Jack Dorsey, the C.E.O. of Square, who wore the same stupid Bitcoin shirt that he donned at last year’s Super Bowl. The Chiefs appeared to have the largest number of celebrities on their side, with Swift watching the game from a private box alongside Kelce’s family and her friends: a rotating cast that included Blake Lively, Paul McCartney, and Ice Spice. Viewers were enamored by a moment in which Swift introduced Ice Spice to Jason Kelce; an image of the encounter quickly became a meme, with one person referring to Jason, Ice Spice, and Swift as “Gimli, Frodo and Legolas,” respectively. Why did people care about an Eagles player meeting the rapper responsible for such gems as “Think U the Shit (Fart)”? The appeal was partly in the randomness: it was a crossover that no one could have predicted earlier in the season. And yet it also embodied the current vibe of the N.F.L., which has increasingly become a show about everything besides football. For me, the most shocking part of this year’s Super Bowl was the five seconds of the broadcast that showed Lana Del Rey, the bard of our tragic times, in a Kansas City jacket.
Many of these celebrities were also featured in Super Bowl commercials, making the game feel like an extended live advertisement. (First you see Ice Spice at the game, then you see her “grah”-ing in an ad for Starry, a lemon-lime soda from PepsiCo.) For the past several years, Super Bowl commercials have been all about celebrity cameos; gone are the days of actively interesting and funny ads. That’s not to say that a celebrity commercial can’t be excellent; I still rewatch the Pepsi commercial that Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and Pink did twenty years ago, and would gladly have their rendition of “We Will Rock You” played at my funeral. But the commercials this year felt particularly soulless, with stars tactlessly throwing their support behind different brands—some niche, some legacy—like undecided voters at a glitching Iowa caucus. Quinta Brunson for TurboTax. Kris Jenner for Oreo. Arnold Schwarzenegger for State Farm. Occasionally, in the ads, you’d get a peek into the fight for the soul of America: there were two commercials for Jesus, a commercial for the Church of Scientology, a haunting R.F.K., Jr., ad (dynasty!), and a commercial against antisemitism and racism that starred Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s speechwriter and was sponsored by a foundation belonging to Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Tom Brady also showed up in ads—for Dunkin’ and BetMGM—as if desperate to prove to us that the Super Bowl still belongs to him. (He has seven rings to Mahomes’s three, but the CBS announcers would be the first to remind you that Mahomes is only twenty-eight.)
Super Bowl commercials are ostensibly geared toward all of America, and yet I genuinely felt bad for anyone watching those ads who isn’t also on TikTok. The brilliance of the CeraVe ad starring Michael Cera is fully clear only to people who saw the initial social-media video, a few weeks ago, of Cera autographing CeraVe products at a Brooklyn pharmacy, as part of a guerilla marketing stunt. My mother-in-law seemed truly confused by a five-second commercial for the language-learning app Duolingo, in which the app’s trademark bird suddenly grew a large butt. It was utterly incomprehensible to those who hadn’t seen a Duolingo TikTok, posted hours before the game, of the bird getting a Brazilian-butt-lift surgery. (Though, now that I think about it, the original TikTok also made no sense.) Over all, the commercials felt abrasive, and written for people with fried attention spans. It was difficult to imagine how an audience in need of that kind of stimulation would ever make it through an entire football game, let alone a football game destined to go to overtime.
The game was an ugly defensive struggle. Both sides suffered injuries; a devastating one came early on when the 49ers’ Dre Greenlaw, after excitedly jumping up and down on the sidelines, appeared to tear his Achilles while jogging back onto the field. The first quarter was scoreless. The players themselves seemed fed up with the flatness of the game, but no one more so than Travis Kelce, who in the second quarter basically bodychecked his poor coach, Andy Reid, seemingly to complain that he wasn’t getting enough playtime. (In the first half, Kelce made just one catch, for one yard.) It was a shocking lack of restraint, and it cast a pall over Kelce’s performance later in the game, as pivotal as he was to the Chiefs’ eventual victory. His outburst not only was disrespectful but reeked of privilege—the kind of privilege that comes with being part of a dynasty. Kelce, it seemed, much like everyone else, fully expected the Chiefs to be winning. (It’s like he thinks he’s Taylor Swift’s boyfriend or something.)
There were a few bright spots, including the kickers: Jake Moody, a rookie on the 49ers, kicked a fifty-five-yard field goal—the longest in Super Bowl history—only for that record to be broken in the next quarter, when the Chiefs’ Harrison Butker kicked a fifty-seven-yarder. It was a welcome reminder that the Super Bowl is meant to be a celebration of athleticism—and composure—at the highest level. Speaking of athleticism: Usher, the halftime act, injected the game with some much-needed energy, at one point performing a roller-skate routine to “OMG.” But the major musical moment of the night happened offscreen, with Beyoncé appearing in an ad—purportedly for Verizon, though it could have been for literally anything—suggesting that she was going to be dropping new music. A few minutes later, her Web site updated to reveal that she would be releasing a country-themed album in March. (I initially wondered why she decided to make this announcement during the Super Bowl, and then I remembered that, despite how boring things can get on the field, it remains the most watched television event in the United States every year.) When the game was at its worst, I would occasionally switch over to the Super Bowl broadcast on Nickelodeon, where the announcers were SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star, and the players would get covered in cartoon slime upon scoring.
The Nickelodeon collab feels like a tacit admission from the N.F.L. that football is under threat. While the CBS announcers focussed on the Mahomes-Brady connection, SpongeBob and Patrick seemed to understand why many younger viewers were tuning in, and made comments about Swift looking pretty. (She did.) The first commercial after the halftime show was for the N.F.L. International Player Pathway Program, which trains foreign kids, including those in Africa, to go pro. The ad was all about the beauty of expanding opportunity to children who love football, but the more cynical read is that the N.F.L. is looking for a solution to the problem of declining football participation among Americans. High-school enrollment in football has been waning, with kids (and their parents) citing safety concerns, and it’s only natural that the N.F.L. is looking to recruit future players abroad.
The N.F.L. can boost its image by donning a protective cloak of celebrities, but, to attract new players, it helps to create new dynasties—the kinds of teams that can become a household name on another continent. It’s a good thing for the league to have little kids out there who want to be like Mahomes, or, for that matter, Brock Purdy, the 49ers quarterback, who went from being the last pick in the draft to playing in a Super Bowl. (That’s a narrative we can all get behind.) The other thing that’s good for the N.F.L. is a Super Bowl that’s actually exciting, and in the end we got one. A blocked extra point ultimately set up the game to go to overtime, which concluded with a touchdown pass from Mahomes to Hardman.
The Chiefs won, 25–22. Lana Del Rey almost got killed by the celebratory mob in Swift’s box. The 49ers sat on their bench, looking depressed, while getting showered in red-and-yellow confetti that, in another world, might have been red and gold. In the lead-up to the game, Kelce apparently gave an inspirational speech that brought his teammates to tears. After the game, he gave a public victory speech that nearly moved me to tears, because of how terrible it was. He shouted the lyrics to “Viva Las Vegas,” as Swift cringe-smiled in response. (As people wrote on social media, we seemed to be watching her get “the ick” in real time.)
The last time the Chiefs and the 49ers played in the Super Bowl, the year was 2020. The Chiefs won that game, too, with an amazing run in the fourth quarter, and several months later Joe Biden won the Presidential election. Because Kelce is also a poster boy for Pfizer and Bud Light (which is considered woke because Dylan Mulvaney, an influencer who is trans, promoted the beer on Instagram), this all contributed to a feeling that this red team, from the solidly red state of Missouri, represents some kind of hope for Team Blue, the Democrats. This is perhaps why the Chiefs’ dominance has become a subject of conspiracy theories—their win was so inevitable that one is tempted to call it rigged. But even Donald Trump, in his own way, suggested that he was rooting for the Chiefs, in a Truth Social post before the game. After writing that Swift would surely never endorse “Crooked Joe Biden, the worst and most corrupt President in the History of our Country,” Trump noted that he likes Kelce, “even though he may be a Liberal, and probably can’t stand me!” In a post-game tweet, Hillary Clinton congratulated “Taylor’s boyfriend—and the entire Kansas City Chiefs community.” Meanwhile, Biden tweeted out a photo of himself with his eyes glowing red, along with the caption “Just like we drew it up.” The caption was a reference to the Chiefs conspiracy, of course, and the photo was a reference to “Dark Brandon,” a right-wing meme that people on the left have lovingly appropriated, sort of like the Chiefs. But, to those who are not perpetually online, Biden’s tweet, despite its cleverness, was about as intelligible as the Duolingo bird getting a butt lift. ♦