"Can you take a picture of us?"
If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that while I was in New Orleans this past week, I'd quite possibly be a millionaire. As hundreds of thousands of people converged on the Big Easy for the incredible back-to-back combination that is the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, everyone wanted to document their trip. With good reason, too: the Super Bowl is a spectacle that must be seen to be believed.
From the hectic Media Day to the cavernous NFL Fan Experience to the always-raucous Bourbon Street scene, New Orleans really is a city like no other. I went down for this year's game, plus a few days before, to see just what really goes into the event that every year breaks its own record as the most-watched event in the history of television.
Super Bowl XLVII was the first in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and in some ways felt like the city's re-introduction to the world. As much as the festivities and events centered on football, they were also distinctly about New Orleans: instead of Kiss and the Black Keys playing at the various concert venues around town, it was Trombone Shorty and a string of local jazz bands. There was crawfish and alligator being served everywhere you looked, including at the game itself. Tostito's, whose ads you couldn't avoid if you tried, made terrible jokes like "We kneaux how to party." There were more Drew Brees jerseys and "Who Dat?" chants than you could count.
The most striking thing about the Super Bowl is just how big it is. Not the game crowd — though 71,024 people made a lot of noise in the stadium — but the size of the festivities, and the sheer number of people who made their way to New Orleans to take part. The NFL Fan Experience, basically a convention center-sized theme park devoted to football games, funny simulations, and autograph seeking, somehow managed to hide a full-sized football field in the back so well that I didn't find it when I first tried. It's like Disney World for football: exciting characters everywhere for you to take pictures with, lots of food and rides and attractions, and you spend pretty much the whole day waiting in line. But also like Disney World, it's very much a magical place.
It's Disney World for football fans
Then there's the game itself. The game watched by more than a hundred million people, and streamed to millions more. When we watch the game on Sunday, it's designed to be seamless and perfect – though this year had a bit of a bumpy ride — and there have been thousands of people here, from CBS and its competitors, making sure for weeks and months that everything went just right. It was CBS's year to broadcast the game, and the network went all out: it took over Jackson Square, in downtown New Orleans, and turned it into a five-set venue for shows from The Talk and Craig Ferguson to Rome and the CBS Evening News. It was designed as something of a re-launch for the CBS Sports Network, and the company promoted it hard, even going so far as to pay people to go into bars and say "hey, can you change the channel to CBS Sports?" You have to pull out all the stops when ESPN, Fox Sports, and the NFL Network were all right down the road.
Over four days leading up to the Super Bowl, I toured New Orleans to see how the Super Bowl is made, and what happens when hundreds of thousands of loud, proud football fans get together to party. And somewhere in there, I'm pretty sure they played a football game.
The Super Bowl letters came in on a barge, and looked over the week's festivities.
The Superdome at night.
Nearly every surface, building, and window in New Orleans was taken over for the game.
At Radio Row inside the Ernest L Morial Convention Center, you couldn't turn around without seeing a famous athlete. (That's Victor Cruz, WR for the New York Giants.)
CBS's "compound" outside the Superdome housed all of its production for the Super Bowl broadcast.
One of CBS's trucks was called the ESU (Engineering Set Up), and it controlled all of the incoming and outgoing signals for the game. I remain unconvinced that anyone knows what these wires do.
Before the game on Sunday, CBS rehearsed with local high school teams, which practiced to play in the style of the Ravens and the 49ers, so the crew could work on its various shots and angles.
Instant replays are ready for every play in only a few seconds, and it's all controlled by a jog wheel like this one.
The "Chrome Cow" is used as a switcher, to determine which of CBS's 80-plus cameras are live during the pregame show.
Inside the CBS production truck, the team pores over every single camera in New Orleans to make sure they're all ready to go.
Hundreds of people walked around in crazy costumes, asking for $1 or so for a picture.
The NFL Experience let fans catch and throw balls, run routes, and hit tackling dummies.
Fans could even pose with the Vince Lombardi trophy, provided they were willing to wait an hour or so in line.
I watched the Extra Point Kick for about a half-hour, and no one made a kick. I respect kickers much more now.
Fans started arriving at the Metrodome almost six hours before game time.
NFL Network, CBS, and others all had pre-grame broadcasts filmed on pop-up stages right next to the field.
Warren Sapp, newly minted Hall-of-Famer, enjoyed his pregame show.
Huge HD cameras lined the edges of the Superdome, capturing the game from every conceivable angle — and sometimes repeating angles just to be safe.
This cameraman was driven up and down the field, shooting the game from the sidelines — he had the best seat in the house.
"Finger flashlights" were on every seat in the stadium — at various points in the first half the announcer taught the fans how to use them during the "Single Ladies" dance.
The story of the Brothers Harbaugh was on everyone's lips — you had to pick a favorite son.
The Ravens enter the field, and run directly at a dozen or so photographers. I picked a safer venue.
At halftime, workers swarmed like ants — in only about five minutes, the field transformed into a stage.
Beyonce performed what will definitely go down as one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows ever.
At the end of her performance, Beyonce basked in the wild applause for about ten seconds before the stage was quickly torn down again.
For the first time, the Super Bowl was shot in 4K – the footage was only for certain situations, but it could be used for even more next year.
The lights went out in the Superdome for more than 30 minutes, halting play and shifting the momentum in the 49ers favor.
When the power went out, a lot of things in the stadium broke. TVs, Wi-Fi — apparently even some of the toilets stopped flushing, though luckily I can't confirm that.
When Ted Ginn Jr. was tackled on a desperate play for a last-second touchdown, the Ravens and their fans went crazy.