SPORTS OP-ED: Lessons Learned From the 2013 Super Bowl

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon

By Arthur Solomon

The Cold Weather New York/New Jersey XLVIII Super Bowl hype began long before the coin toss for last February’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens took place under the weather controlled, but electrically flawed, dome in The Big Easy. The states of New York and New Jersey unleashed a propaganda campaign with a message that could have been based on Voltaire’s famous 1759 satirical novel Candide:  Super Bowl Week will prove that “this is the best of all possible worlds.”

But instead of vying for the home field advantage on Sunday, February 2, 2014, the states were trying to gain something much more important than ownership of the game: an economic bonanza that they hope the Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks spectacle will provide.

Also benefiting from the Big Game will be the expected surge in prostitution that follows the Super Bowl, according to law enforcement officials.  And, maybe, undertakers: The Wall Street Journal reported on November 5 that the rate of heart-related deaths of die-hard fans in the days after a Super Bowl depends on which team won.

Sticker shock may become the most talked about Super Bowl experience for people attending the game who are not subsidized by their corporation’s writing off the expense.  According to a New York Times story of Nov. 28, premium tickets will be twice as expensive as tickets of other Big Games and hotels are doubling their rates.

And if I was a betting person, I’d wager a couple of bucks that the court rejection of the N.F.L. concussion settlement, the Miami Dolphins bullying situation, the refusal of the Washington Redskins to change its name and the weather (the average temperature on Feb. 2 in New Jersey is in the low 20’s with an excellent chance of snow),   will receive considerable media coverage as the reporters desperately look for stories after the first couple of days of Super Bowl Week.  (In fact, that started immediately after the Seattle-San Francisco game, with the media jumping on the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman’s taunting of the 49ers’ Michael Crabtree.

Also certain to receive over-the-top coverage will be is “Peyton Manning the greatest quarterback of all time.”  I can safely tell you the outcome of that discussion: yes, if the Broncos win, no, if they lose, even if winning or losing isn’t primarily because of his performance.

And because the game is being played in the marketing capitol of the world, Super Bowl Week will once again provide a make-work program for retired N.F.L. stars hawking products that they know little about.  (Nothing unusual about that.  Is there?)

Additionally, the sure-to-happen massive traffic jams before and after the game at the George Washington Bridge will be blamed on Governors Cuomo and Christie, with MSNBC faulting Christie and Fox News Cuomo.

But before we try to keep awake from drinking and eating to excess at Super Bowl parties, let’s look at some of the Lessons Learned from last year’s game in New Orleans.

An important, but not the most important Lesson Learned from last year’s Super Bowl is good news for the N.F.L.  and agency marketing and P.R. people.  It’s that the marketer’s string of commercials, interrupted by about 11 minutes of actual football plays, still can depend on the media to provide the sought after hype, not normally available for more superbly creative corporate and brand public relations/marketing campaigns not connected to mega sports events.

Examples of stories, some with little news value, covered during Super Bowl Week 2013:

> The Harbaugh brothers replaced Cain and Abel as the most famous siblings in history.

> N.F. L. Commissioner Roger Goodell showed his proficiency at turning a negative into a positive when commenting on President Obama’s saying that if he had a son  “…I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football…” Goodell said he welcomes the president’s comments because the issue of player’s health and safety has always and will continue to be a priority.   (Goodell’s words would better have been reported on Saturday Night Live than as a serious news story.)

> Ray Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case and then found God, was iconized just because he announced this would be his last game.

> A story about the Sharpie that Jim Harbaugh wears around his neck received major media coverage, as did the “stop the presses” news that there was a third Harbaugh brother, a minor league baseball player.

Also receiving prominent media attention were stories regarding the color of Gatorade that will be used to drench the game-winning brother. 

The non-sports advertising media also did their usual hype job promoting the commercials.  But the most ludicrous hype goes to CBS-TV.  A few days prior to the game, CBS aired an hour special called “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials.”  Not surprisingly the so-called greatest commercials were interrupted with, what else, commercial breaks.

 Last year’s game also showed that the N.F.L. believes that not only hard hitting, but sex sells. Beyonce´  starred in the half-time show, following Madonna and Faith Hill in the previous Super Bowl.   In fact, Sports Illustrated reported that the top twitter moment in the Super Bowl occurred during Beyoncé’s half-time performance with 268,000 tweets per minute.  For viewers who prefer sexiness to completed passes, (no pun intended) Scarlett Johansson will appear in a commercial for Sodastream. 

But the most important Lesson Learned is that the game has become a leading venue for social issues to be expressed, written about, praised, condemned and analyzed:

 Tim Tebow did not play in the 2013 Super Bowl, but he might have changed the event forever with his controversial anti-abortion ad during the 2010 telecast. As they did during the 2012 Super Bowl, Mayors Against Illegal Guns sponsored an ad televised during the game in the Washington area, obviously aimed at Congress. It received wide media coverage. 

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo used the Super Bowl as a platform for his pro-marriage equality and anti-bullying stance.

San Francisco’s Chris Collier said if there are any gay players on the team, "they gotta get up out of here.”

The media day news conference also proved a point that I have long made:  Using athletes as product pitchmen can be detrimental to “good citizen” companies.  Example:  quarterback Joe Flaco referred to the N.Y.-N.J. location for the Super Bowl as “retarded.”  He corrected himself, but it was too late.  His poor choice of the word resulted in negative national media coverage as an insult to those with cognitive disabilities. 

Also on Super Bowl morning, CNN ran a feature about how a father reunited with his New Orleans Saints son because of the Super Bowl.  But CNN also did features about Dan Marino fathering an out-of-wedlock child and the risks players’ face when playing football. 

Fox and Friends did a Sunday a.m. feature about head injuries in the N.F.L. and the concern about youngsters playing football.

Other non-game features had President Obama, on Super Bowl Sunday, talking about football needing to be made safer.

Several retired and current N.F.L. players said that because of concession concerns that they would not want their children playing football.

Missing from all of the above was talk about the spectacle that inspired the coverage – the game. 

Of course, when sports try to show off its good citizen side, it most often ends up as a tacky P.R. stunt.  And as usual, the N.F.L leads the way.  Not content with its yearly show of tastelessness by wrapping itself around the flag and using soldiers as props, the league reached a new exploitation low in New Orleans by capitalizing on the Sandy Hook tragedy by having the school’s chorus sing “America The Beautiful.”
 

If there was a trophy awarded for the most socially indifferent Super Bowl marketer last year it would probably be given to Anheuser-Busch InBev.  The exclusive beer advertiser of the game introduced just what the country needs: a new brew with more alcohol.  And their endeavor to make drinking suds overtake football as the national pastime will continue this year when they turn a cruise ship into the Bud Light Hotel with 22 bars and restaurants.

But since the Super Bowl is actually a super expensive advertising reality show, below are other important lessons from last year that probably will be disregarded by agency publicists and marketers:

A scandal can reduce the media space that normally would have gone to Super Bowl coverage and promotions.  A-Rod and other baseball players being accused of using PEDs proved that. 

The award for the most head scratching commercial was an N.F.L. ad showing how concerned it is about player’s safety.  Ironically, it featured Mel Gray, Rick Upchurch and the late Ollie Matson, all of whom have joined roughly 4000 other players in suing the league for neglecting safety issues.

The story that had the most legs concerned the acceptance of gays and  the anti-bullying stance of  N.F.L. players, as evidenced by a three quarter page spread in USA TODAY on February 8.

Despite an exciting game and Beyoncé  wooing the crowd, marketers should remember that the New Orleans Super Bowl might best be remembered as an event that produced gay slurs, comments that are considered to be insulting to people with cognitive disabilities, former players talking about the disabilities that resulted from playing America’s most violent major sport, former and current players saying they were against their sons playing football and media converge of health and social issues  that largely ignored football coverage. 

So what are the most important questions to ponder from N.F.L. happenings since last year’s Big Game? Is it mothers don’t let your sons grow up to be football players?  It doesn’t matter how a player acts on or off the field as long as he helps his team? How many players will be arrested between this year’s game and next years? All the N.F.L. propaganda over many years can’t erase the outlaw image of the league? Or, maybe, that instead of a commissioner the league needs a warden who has a Ph.D. in psychology?

And an important lesson that marketers never admit: The overwhelming majority of Super Bowl commercials do not result in selling products, according to a 2013 Big Game study by the international advertising research firm Communicus. 

Despite the crass comments from some players, the often offensive TV commercials that are part of the tradition of America’s most violent popular TV program and sport, and the over-the-top media coverage of “everything Super Bowl,” this year’s game will have at least one classy moment: Renée  Fleming, the great opera soprano, will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

While the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII on 2/4/14 is unknown, there are three conclusions that are indisputable:  That despite all the hype about the game being contested in the New York-New Jersey stadium, neither the N.Y. Giants nor Jets will be on the playing field; the hype, propelled by the media, will continue.  And, of course, that Super Bowl Week is the one event where even the least proficient public relations person can be successful.  Because as far as the media is concerned  Anything Goes.

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Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles on national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at  HYPERLINK "mailto:arthursolomon4pr@juno.com" arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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