Super Bowl 1995 was coming, and the Rev. Gene Swinson of the GraceWay church in Augusta, Ga., was wondering how to get a congregation out. He could preach about the usual: salvation, damnation, love thy neighbor, etc. Maybe the ever-popular adultery theme would attract a crowd.

Then he hit upon a major idea: show the Super Bowl at church.So it was. The meeting would go on as usual. Well, not exactly as usual, but . . . . When the appointed hour came, hundreds of fans attended. It was an unmitigated success. Super Bowl XXIX brought in a full house. There was a big-screen television at the altar. During breaks, the congregation watched Christian music videos and heard testimonies from audience members. All in all it was a, well, spiritual experience.

Not your traditional Sunday service, but popular nonetheless.

It's that time again. One week from today, Super Bowl XXXII will take flight, and if you aren't a football fan, consider this fair warning.

For anyone who hates football, Super Bowl week is a bad time to be alive. It's a time when you might want to get away to, say, the Caspian Sea. Actually, you might want to get even farther away. For the 1995 Super Bowl, 3,000 Chevron employees gathered at 4 a.m. in Tengiz, West Kazakstan, on the Caspian Sea, just to see the game.

Super Bowl week, of course, is one in which very little is talked about in America except football. A time when you can't begin to carry on a conversation without someone saying, "So who do you think is going to win the Super Bowl?" A time when even casual fans start paying attention. If you want to be involved in a conversation, you may as well memorize a few standard lines like, "Well, looks like Favre is getting into prime form for the big game, doesn't it?"

Exactly why the Super Bowl has grown to mythical proportions is a matter of opinion. In part it's because the media make it big. From a list of 338 media members who attended the first Super Bowl, it's now up to about 4,000. The game is broadcast in nearly 200 countries, in 18 foreign languages. It's shown in places where they wouldn't know a football from a coconut.

But in another way, the media attention only reflects the demand. The game is the one sporting event even non-fans are curious about. Unlike the NBA and NHL playoffs, and the World Series, it's one game on one day. No best-of-seven format. No strategizing over pitching rotations. It's a short-term commitment. Many of the 750 million fans who watch the game on television never watch another game all year.

Predictably, businesses find Super Bowl Sunday irresistible. It may cost over $1 million a minute to advertise, but where else can you get 750 million people simultaneously looking at a product?

"It's the advertising championship. No matter what you are selling, you know buyers from every category are out there watching the game," advertising executive Jerry Della Femina once said.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported their biggest sales day ever on the morning of Super Bowl XXIX. One southern California dealer reportedly sells over 500 big-screen TV's on Super Bowl weekend - five times the usual amount. He has received orders up to four hours before kickoff. Special Events Magazine said 20 to 30 percent of customers closed deals or increased business significantly after an invitation to a hospitality suite at a sporting event. Those figures would certainly be higher when the Super Bowl is involved.

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You want to impress a client, just casually mention you have tickets to the Super Bowl. He'll be asking where to sign within minutes.

There are actually better reasons to like the Super Bowl than just business. Minor crimes in San Francisco dropped from an average of 360 a day to 96 when Super Bowl XVI - featuring the 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals - was played. In 1997, Georgetown University Hospital installed television sets in the labor room to make sure husbands got their wives to the hospital on time.

The Super Bowl isn't everything. It isn't the answer to world peace or global warming. It isn't the solution to gang crime or teen pregnancy. It can't save the whales. It usually isn't even an interesting game.

But it is a good excuse for 750 million people at once to enjoy themselves. To which the congregation at the GraceWay Church will duly testify.

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