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Who's Playing Not Important In America's Biggest Extravaganza

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HOUSTON — "You may be wondering," the smiling lady said, "just exactly what the NFL, Breathe-Right nasal strips and snoring all have in common."

To tell the truth, nobody really was wondering.

The 100 or so people at the publicity event more or less accepted the fact that the marriage between the three was legit. It is, after all, Super Bowl week, and snoring, nasal strips andfootball didn't make any more, or less, sense being thrown together than chips, dip and an ice-cold can of beer.

In fact, no marketing play, publicity stunt or other show of excess surprises many people at the Super Bowl anymore. It is the nation's biggest unofficial holiday, an extravaganza of Americanrevelry and indulgence that celebrates not so much football, as America's ability to celebrate.

"You take an event centered on TV, lubricated by beer and junk food, add the gambling element, drop it in a perfect spot on the calendar, and you've got the perfect American holiday," said Bob Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University.

Who's playing? Who cares?

Some 137 million people -- about half the nation's population -- are expected to watch at least six minutes of it on TV. About 86 million will watch in much bigger chunks.

Frito-Lay has increased corn and potato production by 10 million pounds, about 33 percent more than they'd go through during an average week. Americans will spend about $2.5 million on canned chili beans this week, double what they would usually spend.

In a somewhat fanciful estimate, one number-crunching company says corporate America will suffer an $821 million loss in worker productivity due to people standing by the water cooler talking about the game.

But they don't just talk about the game. In fact, they may not talk about the game at all.

It's the Lingerie Bowl (on pay per view), the halftime show, the premiere of a new season of "Survivor" when the game is over, and the commercials -- if you miss them, you'll simply be left out of the conversation on Monday -- that make the Super Bowl what it is.

The past decade has brought the proliferation of cable channels and the decline of the once-sacrosanct network television ratings. Not this Sunday, though.

"The rating is pretty much bulletproof," CBS Sports president Sean McManus said.

The matchup, Carolina versus New England, barely matters, McManus said. Naturally, CBS would love a close game. But McManus conceded the difference between a close game and a blowout will probably only be the difference in about 3 ratings points -- in other words, the difference between one of the 10 most-watched shows in the history of TV and just something in the top 40.

Because of the popularity of "Survivor," which will air after the game, McManus knew early in the week that Sunday would be the highest-producing revenue day in television history, at about $160 million. Super Bowl ads are pricing at an average of $2.3 million per 30 seconds.

"There is nothing else like the Super Bowl. It's water cooler, it's an event," Donna Wolfe of the Universal McCann ad agency said.

So when, exactly, did the Super Bowl turn into this?

When did a game that began as something of an exhibition between two rival leagues -- the first "AFL-NFL Championship Game" between Green Bay and Kansas City didn't even sell out -- turn into a cultural phenomenon that brings people together the same way Thanksgiving and Christmas do?

"The ratings for the Super Bowl have been pretty high for a long time," Thompson said. "But I don't know. I'd say somewhere around five or six years ago, the whole thing hit some new cultural plateau, and you can't really judge it by numbers."

Still, some numbers are worth mentioning.

By unofficial count, there are 87 "official" NFL parties, events and concerts scheduled for Houston, the Super Bowl city, to say nothing of the "unofficial" events and availabilities:Playboy is throwing a party. Superagent Leigh Steinberg is, too.

Dr. Herbert Lepor, chairman of the urology department at New York University Medical Center, is available for interviews about erectile dysfunction. The hook? He says the discussion is timelybecause men might be confused by the barrage of Super Bowl ads for the various Viagras available on the market these days.

But the promotions don't stop there. Almost everyone wants to get their name attached to the Super Bowl in some way.

Campbell's Chunky Soup and the "Mama's Boys," a group of NFL players, helped tackle hunger. The Kraft Super Bowl Cook-Off featured Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Levitra sponsored the NFL Play of the Year at a ceremony emceed by Mike Ditka.

Jerry Rice was a presenter at the snore-off, where Hall of Famer Jim Taylor was named the NFL's loudest snorer of all time.

"It's going to be an exciting day!" Rice promised before the competition began.

Meanwhile, in Nevada last year, $71 million was legally wagered on everything from who would win the opening coin toss to who would win the game. Hundreds of millions more will be illegally wagered in office pools, friendly bets at parties, through offshore Internet companies and illegal bookies in the United States, making this the biggest single gambling day in America.

"Super Bowl Sunday to the compulsive gambler is like New Year's Eve to the alcoholic," said Arnie Wexler, a compulsive-gambling counselor who is using the Super Bowl to draw attention to the issue.

McManus of CBS says he expects a record rating for his postgame show, which will wrap up the network's 12 hours of coverage. The good ratings won't come, however, because people are so hungry for interviews and analysis. Rather, they'll be hanging in there for the premiere of a new season of "Survivor."

Ah, that first episode.

It's always important because it gives viewers a chance to meet the players, size up their strengths and weaknesses, handicap the competition and maybe make a prediction. It sounds a lot like the Super Bowl, except in the case of "Survivor," more viewers might actually care who wins.

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