The secret to covering the Super Bowl? Break away from the pack
A new book has a telling passage that shows how much the media and the Super Bowl has changed. In "When It Was Just A Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl," author Harvey Frommer writes about what passed for media day prior to the Green Bay-Kansas City game in Los Angeles in 1967.
The reporters were invited to the Packers team hotel in Santa Barbara. Vince Lombardi told the players to hang around in their rooms. The legendary coach then passed out the room list to the reporters and sent them on their way.
In the book, Jerry Magee, formerly of the San Diego Union-Tribune, says: "We went up to Bart Starr’s room and knocked on his door. Starr opened it, saw who we were, and said, 'Hey, come on in, fellas. What can I do for you?'"
Try to imagine Bill Belichick doing something similar today. "Hey fellas, Tom Brady is waiting for you in room 258."
Of course, the NFL needed to do everything it could to hype Super Bowl I, which didn’t even come close to selling out the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The magnitude and significance of the game has grown exponentially since then, and that includes the media coverage.
This week, the media horde will descend on California's Bay Area to cover Denver versus Carolina in Super Bowl 50. Those massive numbers make it perhaps the worst setup in sports from a coverage standpoint.
Yet, according to a couple of veteran Super Bowl reporters, it is possible to write original, enterprise-type stories while veering away from the media pack.
The first rule: Don’t be part of the pack
"If you’re in an interview situation with 100 media members, everyone is going to use the same quotes," said Bill Plaschke, the longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "That’s a nightmare."
"I never go to Media Day [when players in full uniform are met by wall-to-wall reporters on the Tuesday before the game]," said Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei, who will be covering his 29th Super Bowl. "It’s a clown show. I’ve never been one to follow a crowd."
The second rule: Do as much advance work as possible before Super Bowl week
"If you wait until you get there, you’re dead," Plaschke said.
Plaschke and Pompei use the week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl to work the phones to get people to talk about their subjects. For a story on Carolina coach Ron Rivera, Pompei sought to get insights people who impacted his career, such as Andy Reid, Norv Turner, and Mike Ditka.
"It is essential to do your homework," Pompei said.
One of the Plaschke’s favorite stories was on Bears offensive lineman Roberto Garza, who became the first Latino to play in the Super Bowl. Plaschke stopped in Garza’s hometown outside of Beaumont, Texas on his way to the 2007 game in Miami.
Prior to 2013 Super Bowl week, Plaschke tracked down relatives for the person who was murdered in the 2000 case involving Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis didn't face trial, but the incident still hangs over him.
Plaschke and Pompei also try to locate people who knew a particular player from way back when.
"They might not be participants, but they usually have some great stories to tell about them," Pompei said.
"There’s the reflection from the glow of the Super Bowl, and everyone wants to talk," Plaschke said. "Then when you get to the Super Bowl, you use the player to fill in the gaps."
The third rule: Do stories beyond Peyton Manning and Cam Newton
You don’t need a star player to write a good story.
"Sometimes, I prefer to talk to a backup running back who is by himself," said Pompei, who recently launched a new website, DanPompei.net. "The Super Bowl is one of the few times we get to spend time with assistant coaches. I ask them a lot of questions. Often, they are very good talkers."
The fourth rule: Make sure the story is relevant
Thinking out of the box is great, but make sure you still can see the box. During a Miami Super Bowl, Plaschke drove into the Everglades to do a column on an alligator wrestler.
"I wanted to do something different," Plaschke said. "But this guy had no interest in the Super Bowl. He wasn’t even going to watch the game. I wrote the column, and I realized, 'This column is completely irrelevant.' You’ve got find some connection to the game."
Plaschke has a rule he always follows. "I always tell myself, 'Don’t do the alligator wrestler story,'" he said.
The fifth rule: Keep digging
There's a good reason why many veteran reporters list the Super Bowl as their least-favorite event to cover.
"As the media and the Super Bowl has evolved, the pack has become bigger and bigger," Pompei said. "It’s a hurdle to tell good stories."
Yet Pompei and Plaschke contend the good stories are out there. They just require creativity and extra effort to find.
"Football is such an inhumane game with all of its violence," Plaschke said. "But the Super Bowl is the one time in the year where you can humanize these guys. Just by being in the Super Bowl, these guys are studs. People want to know about them."