Super Bowl LVI: For Desis, American Football is an Acquired Taste But With Benefits
- From the stadium stands to sports bars and homes, South Asian Americans cheered their favorite team and enjoyed the most popular sporting day in America.
Tara Dahal was never interested in American football and had no knowledge about the game either. But this time when the Cincinnati Bengals reached the Super Bowl, he learned the game from his 14-year-old son, Subham. “We watched the final at home,” said the Cincinnati-based Nepali American, who now enjoys watching the game, and has become “a good fan of Burrow and the Bengals.”
While this year’s game was a catalyst for Dahal’s introduction to the sport, many South Asian American immigrants have been gravitating to the sport as a way of assimilating into the mainstream. For those that grew up on cricket, soccer, or even field hockey, watching college and NFL games does not come naturally. Yet, come football season, desis, sporting their favorite team jerseys, start congregating in bars or at homes, rooting for their favorite team, high-fiving at a touchdown and cheering at high decibels, feeding off each other’s energy. It is the social aspect of the game, as well as its excitement and unpredictability that attracts them to the sport.
The same energy was seen among the South Asian Americans this Sunday, Feb. 13, as the LA Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals at the SoFi stadium in Los Angeles, California. From the stadium stands to bars and homes, they cheered their favorite teams and enjoyed the most popular sporting day in America. Add to that the ads, the halftime show, the food, the drinks, the company – it was a win-win, no matter the outcome of the game.
Azra Big loves watching the Super Bowl every year – “the football game, the halftime show, the commercials and the food.” Although she’s been a Cleveland Browns fan since she was a child, she was cheering the Cincinnati Bengals as she was happy to see “at least one of the Ohio teams make it to the Super Bowl.”
West Windsor, New Jersey Mayor Hemant Marathe watched the game with family. A die-hard fan, football has become an integral part of his life since he was a student at Virginia Tech in the early 1980s. He recalls how he watched college teams play and gradually get interested in the sport. His roommate taught him how the game worked.
While most watch the sport for the love of the game or their allegiance to a particular team, fans agree that eating and drinking are a big part of watching sports. Super Bowl parties have become de rigueur and many Indian-American families host the annual events replete with the must-haves like beer, chips and dip, chicken wings, pizza and nachos. It is also a time to socialize.
“Sports is more about being social than anything else,” says Navdeep Parmar. “Watching your favorite team with fellow fans or sports lovers is always fun.” Parmar, of East Brunswick, New Jersey, gets together with friends to watch NFL games once the season begins. Although Parmar grew up here, and most of his friends grew up in India, their common love for sports brings them together. For many like him, watching the game with friends at a bar makes for an ideal Sunday.
Some supported the Bengals, probably because of their name. Many on social media joked about how the game was between the Bengalis and Ramas. “Watching the Super Bowl. The only football game I watched in the entire season,” actress Ranjita Chakravarty wrote on her Facebook. “Supporting the Bengals — simply because of their name. Since I am a proud Bengali. What none of the team members are from Bengal? Oh what — well Bengali is a state of being.”
(The legend has it that the Cincinnati Bengals got their name in part because of a rare white tiger at the kept at the Cincinnati Zoo.)
Many gave their own twists to the game — whether it’s with the menu or attire or adding a workout based on the number of fumbles, interceptions and touchdowns. Varun Gandhi of Los Angeles hosted a small gathering of friends. They enjoyed the game together feasting on a delicious vegan spread. “Not everyone was into football,” Gandhi said. “Most of them came to hang out and meet each other; only 30 percent cared for the game.” The biggest hit was the halftime show. “We were all in the age group who grew up on Snoop [Snoop Dogg], Dre [Dr. Dre], Eminem, Kendrick [Kendrik Lamar], and Mary [Mary J. Blige].”
The halftime show was a draw for Atlanta-based chef Neelma Patel as well, although the final outage of the game disappointed her. “We always want to see the underdogs win when our own teams don’t make it this far and so it was disappointing to see the Bengals lose,” she said. “However, its’ always about the best team winning,” she added. “The halftime show took me back to my youth and loved showing my kids a part of me when the beat dropped.”
There were the ads too. While the commercials for Uber Eats, CoinBase, Chevrolet, and Lays stood out, there were at least two with a desi connection. An ad for Peacock featured dhol player Sunny Jain, founder of the band Red Baraat. Also included in the ad were co-artistic directors of the Brooklyn Raga Massive, Need Murgai on sitar; Akshat Jain on sousaphone and Roshni Samal on tabla.
A Google ad included a Sikh American family. The spot promotes Google’s Pixel 6 phone and one of its distinctive features—Real Tone, a software tech that ensures its camera accurately captures diverse skin colors.
While those who watched at home enjoyed the game with the ads and the spread and company, for those who were at the game, it was a surreal experience. Comedian Rajiv Satyal, who was at the venue, described the feeling as “incredible.” Satyal, who was born and raised in Cincinnati, now lives in Los Angeles, 15 minutes from the Sofi Stadium. According to him, nearly 53 percent of the tickets were brought by Bengals fans. “there were so many Bengal fans,” says Satyal, who decided at the last minute to attend the game. “Standing at the stadium, in that energy, knowing that everyone has splurged, was an experience like no other.”
Satyal, whose immigrant parents are also fans of the sport, explains that the excitement, the immediacy and the unpredictability of the game,” is what attracts people to it. “Football is. Religion in this country, like no other.”
Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval was also at the stadium supporting the Bengals. On his social media handles, he posted photos of him at pre-game events, giving press conferences, hanging out with team members and tailgating with the fans.
Supporting the Rams was Dilawar Syed, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration. “Amazing energy and California spirit at the Super Bowl,” he tweeted. “Rooting for LA Rams— for the love of the Golden State!!”
Also rooting for the Rams was Samir Dedhia of New Jersey, co-founder and interim CEO of LemonBrew, a tech company for everything real estate. “Congratulations to the Los Angeles Rams on their Super Bowl championship,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Coming from a Philadelphia Eagles fan, we know it’s not easy winning a championship but the Rams organization is something special and their fans should be proud of what this team represents from the top down.”
On his Facebook page, Satyal wrote about his connection with his home team. He admitted that while the team wasn’t doing well, he had broken off with it. “I never truly rooted against the Bengals,” he wrote, but he didn’t wish them ill. This time, though, when I saw my Dad get so excited for the playoffs, I realized the Bengals are family. Sometimes you’re pissed at them, sometimes you even feel you hate them. But you always return — because family always takes you back.”