Carolina Panthers

Who will America root for in the Super Bowl?

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

For Charlotte, it’s the no-brainer to end all no-brainers: the Panthers, of course. And more than 1,500 miles west and nearly 1 mile higher than here, it’s naturally all about the Broncos.

But then there’s the rest of America, and – with the 30 other teams in the league on vacation for the next seven months – a burning question that’s making its way into pretty much every conversation involving football: Who will you root for in Super Bowl 50?

The slightest fans (those who’ll more likely be watching the game on Feb. 7 for the commercials) might pledge their temporary allegiance based on something trivial: the most-pleasing team colors, or the coolest uniform designs, or which quarterback is sexier, or which mascot looks less like a horror-movie monster.

That’s the easy way out, though. There’s a lot more to the contrasting appeals of the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers than “I like Peyton Manning’s Nationwide Insurance ads more than Cam Newton’s Oikos Triple Zero yogurt ads” (or vice versa) – although the team’s quarterbacks are a good place to start the conversation.

Indeed, over the next week and a half, everyone from frothing network TV sports analysts to casual fans just trying to demonstrate they know something about football will be bringing up the same two storylines over and over again.

In one corner: Manning, one of the most recognizable quarterbacks of the modern era, who enters his fourth decade in March, who has one Super Bowl ring in three appearances over 18 seasons, who is almost certain to retire from football – win or lose – after this one, a sentimental favorite if there ever was one.

And in the other corner: Newton, in his fifth season but still just a kid at 26, one of the sport’s most exciting young superstars in years, who turns end zones into dance floors, who offends Tennessee moms as easily as he brings smiles to the faces of young kids, a polarizing figure if there ever was one.

A tale of two QBs

So in that respect, whom average Americans will root for boils down to whether they favor tradition and reliability or a fresh perspective and razzle-dazzle.

“Manning fits the criteria of ‘hero,’ while for most of the country, Cam is a celebrity,” said Matt Katz, assistant professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management.

“Manning is in the final stage of a struggle for one last championship, one last hurrah, and I think most of America will attach more closely with that narrative than with the growing celebrity of Newton and the Panthers. … Manning has had surgeries. He has lost arm strength. He was even benched earlier this year. Yet now he is leading his team to the Super Bowl. That’s a pretty powerful narrative. It almost sounds like a movie.”

Most pundits agree – somewhat generally speaking – that if you’ve been a football fan since, oh, let’s say 1984 (when Manning’s dad, Archie, retired from the NFL), there’s a good chance you’ll be rooting for the Broncos. You’re the old guard.

Cam Newton just exudes this coolness and this swagger. Yeah, obviously some people don’t like it. We’ve read some famous letters to the editor talking about how Cam is ruining society, blah blah blah. But I think those people are few and far between.

Chris Chase, USA Today

Meanwhile, if you own a pair of Beats headphones, you probably will adopt the Panthers for the Super Bowl.

“Cam Newton just exudes this coolness and this swagger,” said Chris Chase of USA Today Sports’ “For The Win” website. “Yeah, obviously some people don’t like it. We’ve read some famous letters to the editor talking about how Cam is ruining society, blah blah blah. But I think those people are few and far between.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to dislike Cam because you don’t like showboating. You don’t like showboating? It’s fine to dislike Cam. But it’s also fine to like him because of it. I personally think it’s great for the sport, and I think that he is making football fun again, when – for the past couple years – the NFL has kind of legislated fun out of the game. When you watch these Panthers, they’re having fun, and that’s gonna resonate.”

Also a part of the equation, as Newton himself pointed out Wednesday, is race.

“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people, because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” the Panthers quarterback said.

Michael Mudrick, assistant professor of sport management at York College of Pennsylvania, would say that Newton’s comment ties into a concept called “framing theory,” which suggests that media can powerfully shape public perceptions of a person – or a group of persons. NFL quarterbacks, for instance.

Consider this: A typical football analyst wouldn’t insert race into a televised discussion about a quarterback who just so happens to be white or who just so happens to be black. But it also just so happens that, historically, “white quarterbacks are more likely to be analyzed as being students of the game, that might not have the strongest arm strengths,” Mudrick said. “Black quarterbacks are more likely to be analyzed as relying heavily on athleticism, but lacking in abilities to read defenses.”

And many observers might apply those respective labels to Manning and Newton, though Newton has proven this season that he can run the ball and pass from the pocket, navigating defenses as well as any of the best quarterbacks in the league.

The issue, Mudrick said, is that “because of these (perceptions), many sports fans – particularly older ones – see the way the white quarterback plays as ‘the right way.’ 

Beyond the QBs

If you want to actually get technical in trying to measure America’s leanings, there are at least a couple of ways to slice and dice all of this. And truth be told, some very neutral experts are favoring the Panthers.

Margaret Dawson, a global product marketing specialist for Red Hat who lives outside Seattle, is one of them. In fact, she’s not even all that neutral – she’s a die-hard Seahawks fan whose heart broke when the Panthers beat her team in the playoffs earlier this month.

But she’s giving Carolina the edge over Denver on social media.

In an email to the Observer, Dawson said that on average in the past week, the Panthers official Twitter account has received 2,600 interactions per tweet versus 1,700 for the Broncos.

She also pointed out that celebrities with large followings are talking about the Panthers more than the Broncos (former Davidson College star Stephen Curry, now of the NBA championship-winning Golden State Warriors, and NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name two).

And Jason Falls, senior vice president of digital strategy for Louisville, Ky.-based Elasticity, used an advanced “social listening” service provided by NetBase Solutions to tell the Observer this: In examining all activity involving the topics “Carolina Panthers,” “Denver Broncos,” “Super Bowl” or “Super Bowl 50” in the past week, the No. 1 associated hashtag was “#KeepPounding.”

Then, after several minutes of spitting out data he was reading off of his computer screen, Falls broke character with this: “To be completely honest with you – and this is just my opinion, since I don’t really have a team that I follow – but from a middle-America guy who just likes the NFL … I have so enjoyed watching Cam Newton play this year.”

Another factor to consider, of course, is Vegas. Currently, the odds have Carolina as a 4  1/2-point favorite, and Scott Cooley of Bookmaker.eu said he’s seeing a lot of action on the Panthers.

“As far as the contrast at the wagering window … if they don’t really have a stake in either team, we’re anticipating bettors to be backing the Panthers, absolutely,” Cooley said. “We’ve already seen an influx of money on the Panthers.”

The final analysis

This is somewhat anecdotal, and not at all to say that Carolina is becoming America’s team.

Consider this gut check: Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising, said his daughter – “a decent football fan” – turned to him during the Panthers-Cardinals game last Sunday and asked, “So where exactly are the Carolina Panthers from?” (“A lot of people don’t know they’re based in Charlotte,” Dorfman said.)

According to a Harris Poll conducted last September, the Dallas Cowboys were America’s favorite team, followed by the Green Bay Packers, the New England Patriots and the Super Bowl-bound Broncos.

The Panthers? No. 16.

That’s hardly a surprise. The Panthers are basically babies, having joined the NFL 21 seasons ago. Many outside the Carolinas probably don’t even remember this organization went to the Super Bowl in 2004.

The Broncos, on the other hand, were a charter member of the American Football League and have been grinding it out on the gridiron since Dwight Eisenhower was president. They’ve been to eight Super Bowls and have come away with two Lombardi Trophies.

Yup, no matter how you try to parse it, the conversation inevitably will come back to the old guard vs. the new school. “I like tradition” vs. “I like dabbing.” Peyton Manning and his last chance at Super Bowl glory vs. Cam Newton and his first.

It’s simple, really. The answer to the “Who is America rooting for to win the Super Bowl?” question seems to boil down to this one quote from Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis:

“When you ask the casual fan – who isn’t gambling on the game, or a fan of either team – who they are rooting for, my sense is there will be a significant generational divide.”

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

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