Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Game

Dr. Z once did an internet column reviewing football books in which he commented, citing George Young, every nonfiction book should have an index. I'd take that and go on step further, adding that every nonfiction book not written solely based on personal knowledge should have a list of works cited, or some other way to identify that the author (or his favorite sources) didn't just make the whole thing up. Any book that lacks both starts out well behind the eight ball in my view.

And so it was with Allen St. John's The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day in American Sport - Super Bowl Sunday. It does, however, include the all-important, and never-excluded, Acknowledgments section. This is where, of course, the author thanks all the wonderful people like his agent and the publisher and the people who told him what to write in case you missed their names the 8 times they're mentioned in the book. Billion Dollar Game is St. John's (no relation to Warren St. John of RJYH fame that I know of) attempt to write about all the goings-on that make the Super Bowl a transcendent American experience. The sort of book, writing about a single event from multiple angles has been tried before, most successfully in the football context by Pete Williams in The Draft, and St. John hits the high points, talking with the Fox producer Artie Kempner about television the game, the architect who designed University of Phoenix Stadium, Joe Buck about broadcasting the game, the Budweiser advertising guy about picking the commercials, the architect who designed the stadium, the Playboy people about planning the party, the NFL's event planning guy, and did I mention the architect who designed University of Phoenix Stadium?

I swear, St. John spends more of the book talking about him (Peter Eisenman, by name) than Jared Diamond did about his New Guinean friends in Guns, Germs, and Steel. It's like St. John can't help it, because he's an architect who really likes football. Bill Bidwill seemed to have hired him in part because he knew the backfield for the 1948 Chicago Cardinals that won the NFL championship. As someone who's never been to University of Phoenix Stadium, and probably never will go there unless that's where the Super Bowl is when the Titans make it again (assuming they do so before I die), I don't really care about the stadium-this isn't baseball with non-uniform dimensions. As a fan, unless I'm at the game, the only thing I care about is whether or not the stadium has a roof or doesn't, and St. John manages to discuss the decision whether or not to have the roof open or closed without mentioning the architect (well, it had to happen once in the book).

Rant about the architect aside, while these books can be really good when they're done well, the book feels more like an excuse for St. John to hang out with people doing cool stuff as they work. The most interesting stuff comes from the Fox producer Artie Kempner, who really does seem like a guy who tries very hard to get the best possible shots he can, but he does that every danged week and the Super Bowl isn't, can't be for efficiency's sake, that much different from any other game.

Back to the absence of an index... the reason nonfiction books don't have an index is because the publisher doesn't want to pay the money for one. This lack of devotion to quality shows up in the text of the book-Darren Rovell of CNBC is referred to as being with ESPN at one point (where he once was) and CNBC later on, the Colts-Cowboys game is misidentified as Super Bowl IV (Chiefs over Vikings) instead of SBV, and it's not Larry Csonka, not "Czonka". I tend to be a whole-word reader that reads quickly and thus normally run over typos unless I'm looking for them, so the fact that I found three probably means there are more I missed. In a 259 page book, even the three is at least two too many.

I also must note that St. John credulously repeats the claims of the "economic boost" the Phoenix area "received" from hosting the Super Bowl. He does at least acknowledge the arguments that economists make about the "economic boost" being grossly overstated, but then dismisses them because cities keep trying to host the Super Bowl and besides his book looks better if he can claim the Super Bowl has a ginormous* economic impact. Because, after all, it's not like people would go to Phoenix in February if not for the Super Bowl, and everybody knows politicians never spend money on prestigious things that make them look good and put them in touch with famous people, even if doing so would not be the wisest use of taxpayer dollars.

As to whether or not you should read this book, well, I didn't think all that much of it. It does at least have the virtue of being the only book to approach the Super Bowl from the perspective it does, so it's not like I can point you to another book on the same subject you should read instead. It's also not actually bad, just a little tiresome and not that interesting. There's worse stuff out there, but also better ones, too.

*-I had no idea "ginormous" was a "real" word until it didn't result in a red squiggly line from the Firefox spellchecker and I verified it with M-W. Learn something new every day.

UPDATE (4/20/09 2202 CT): Fixed a few typos and whatnot.


Jon said...

Tom, you're back! D0es Saint John just focus on that one particualr Super Bowl? This sonds like a book that I would borrow from the library if I had the time to read it.

Tom said...

Yeah, I'm still here. I keep reading stuff other than football books, though, so the pile on my endtable isn't getting smaller.

Billion Dollar Game is really focused on SB42, NE-NYG. There's a little bit in there about SB41, but scene-setting stuff-Playboy didn't like X and Y about its party, so they're trying to find a different type of venue where X and Y won't be problems, or it rained a lot in Miami and snowed in DET for SB40, so here's what weather-related precautions we're taking this year.

There's not really any longitudinal stuff to give you a sense of how things have changed over time, aside from stuff I've heard a zillion times before about how they were giving away tickets to the first AFL-NFL Championship Game or Apple's "1984" commercial. If he had given more of a sense of history of the commercialization development, I think I would have liked the book better.

Jon said...

Thanks. BTW, I am 100% in agreement with you about indexes. Not sure if I told you this, but I've been writing biographical stuff on baseball players for the past few years. An index is a godsend when I'm trying to find info on a player.