FREMANTLE, Australia — Doug Burton, the veteran Australian photo-journalist who runs the America's Cup lab at the media center, was driving to work this morning when he stopped to pick up a couple of young hitchhikers.
"They had a bloody funny accent, so I asked 'em where they were from," Burton said. "They said 'Noo Yawk. We're trying to get to Fremantle to watch the Super Bowl.' "
Burton did not know how to break the bad news to them.
If you were overdosed on football, sick of Super hype and desperate to escape from John Madden and his mad diagrams, this was the place for you. The Super Bowl--brace yourself--was not on television in Western Australia.
Perth, with its waterfront suburb of Fremantle, is one of those outposts of civilization where humanity survives blissfully ignorant of the implications of third-down conversions.
In fact, at the moment referee Jerry Markbreit blew his whistle in Pasadena to start the game, citizens here were waking up a few minutes after 7 in a holiday mood and looking forward to this evening's fireworks display on the Swan River. Today is Australia Day, commemorating the occasion 199 years ago when Capt. Arthur Phillip landed at the present site of Sydney with a boatload of English convicts to establish the first European settlement in Australia.
Obviously, the natives care far more for their ancestors than for the American mercenaries clashing half a world away. The local papers did a perfect job of ignoring the game. Absolutely perfect.
And if you flipped across the three local TV channels, you would have seen only cartoons, Australia's "Today" show and Australia playing the West Indies in cricket. Always cricket. There must be an Australian law that a cricket match must be on TV every day.
Time out to explain cricket: They wear sweaters and long pants even when it's 100 degrees, and they don't spit, scratch or argue with the umpire, but otherwise it's a little like baseball. Very little. That's all you need to know.
So now it's clear why Kookaburra boss Kevin Parry, sailing's answer to Robert Irsay, flew to China a few days ago: to see the Super Bowl. And if you thought a billion Chinese don't care, that says nothing of the indifference in Fremantle.
A reporter tested Lyall Rowe, another veteran Australian journalist who is director of the media center.
"Who's playing in the Super Bowl?" Rowe was asked.
"Let's see," he said, scratching his chin, "I saw something the other day. I think the New York team and, uh, hmm . . . "
Rowe explained the indifference: "Australian Rules is the only football they care about here."
That game, frequently seen on cable channels in the United States, is as violent as football, but the Western Australians don't understand why the Americans have to wear pads and helmets.
The Super Bowl was beamed live to Sydney and Melbourne, via satellite, and foreign TV networks here covering the America's Cup races were able to pirate it into their control rooms. An American reporter slipped in to watch with the ESPN crew.
Jim Kelly read a paper through most of the first half, while Jack Whitaker commented: "I've done 12 of these (Super Bowls). I'd rather be here."
Indifference is contagious.
Alan Bond, who owns Channel 9 and most of the other TV business in Australia, arranged for the Stars & Stripes crew to watch the game on a private feed into his sail loft near their waterfront compound.
"I only saw the first half," Dennis Conner complained. "I got busy raising money. They sent me back to make a few calls at halftime and I missed the rest of the game."
Tom Whidden, his tactician, said Conner did not miss much.
"Football's boring compared to sailing," Whidden said. "Those guys are out there for three hours and they don't even get wet."
Whidden, bored, must have left before Bill Parcells and Phil Simms got hit with the Gatorade.
The good news, meanwhile, is that any Americans who missed the game can see it on tape here next Saturday.
They hope they don't find out who won and spoil it, but there seems little danger of that.