05 Feb 2016
The Super Bowl according to Business of Sports Expert Stephen Greyser
Stephen Greyser

On Sunday millions of eyes will turn toward northern California for the golden anniversary Super Bowl between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. From humble beginnings, this contest has become the biggest of big games, a blockbuster that fills stadiums and coffers alike, while the world watches in consistently record numbers on TV. Harvard Business School professor emeritus Stephen A. Greyser, an authority on advertising, marketing, and the business of sports, has been watching Super Bowls since the beginning. He offered some thoughts in a recent interview.

The first Super Bowl took place on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. You could buy tickets on the day of the game, and there were more than 30,000 empty seats when the two teams took the field. So how did the Super Bowl actually become super?

The first game wasn’t even billed as the Super Bowl – that didn’t happen until the third game in the series. Instead, it was described as the “world championship” game between the top teams in the now defunct American Football League -- the Kansas City Chiefs -- and the Green Bay Packers of the older and more prestigious National Football League. The Packers won, 35-10. But two years later, the AFL’s New York Jets, quarterbacked by Joe Namath, beat the favored Baltimore Colts, as they were known before relocating to Indianapolis, and that helped lead to a merger between the two leagues. Since then, there has been an ever-growing focus on competition between the two best teams in America’s favorite sport and an exponential increase in the size of the television audience -- now supplemented by an array of social media -- and the accompanying opportunity for advertisers to reach all these people in one fell swoop over the course of a single evening. The Super Bowl is now our biggest secular holiday, reaching more than 110 million homes in the United States alone – the largest TV audience of any single event in this country. At a time of great fragmentation in the media, this is a unique aggregation of people across a wide set of demographic categories, including women, who now make up more than 43 percent of NFL fans.

Which explains why this is the Super Bowl for advertisers as well.

Absolutely. The going rate this year for 30 seconds of commercial time is $5 million. And beyond that, of course, there’s the cost of creating and producing the often elaborate ad. Marketers and their agencies want to showcase their best work. And many viewers actually look forward to watching the ads and talking about them online and at workplaces the next day. They want to see, for example, what Coca-Cola will come up with, what emotional story the Clydesdales of Anheuser-Busch will tell, what new dot-com companies will appear, and what celebrities will be showcased. But these days, promoting ads and ramping up interest in them begins before the big game with the online release of a commercial, creating buzz via public relations and social media. Marketing teams are already hard at work blogging, tweeting, instagramming, and getting out their messages about their ads over other platforms. Some ads, such as Audi’s with the late David Bowie’s music and Pokemon’s tribute to its 20th anniversary, are already viewable online. Even as the commercials are aired during the game, social media activity continues. Remember the famous Oreo cookie tweet when the lights went out at Super Bowl XLVII? “You can still dunk in the dark,” it said. People still talk about that one. For some advertisers, a Super Bowl ad slot has become more like a sponsored event property than an ad. Advertisers want to leverage the cost and opportunity. The goal is to stimulate interest and secondary discussion about the ad as long as possible, without losing sight of what the product and brand are. At the end of the day, you don’t want viewers to remember the production values but not their reason for being—the brand and its message.

What do the television networks do to stoke the fire?

Their contracts with the NFL call for them to rotate the Super Bowl among the three networks that broadcast the regular season games – NBC, Fox, and CBS, which is doing the honors this year. CBS has created several prime-time specials during the week to take advantage of fans’ enthusiasm for everything related to the Super Bowl, including a two-hour show on the game’s greatest commercials, a one-hour recap of that, and a program devoted to the game’s greatest half-time shows. On the Saturday night before the game, CBS will broadcast an NFL honors and awards show, which, among other things, will feature this year’s class of Hall of Fame finalists. The NFL Network has weeklong live and repeat programs for avid fans. Earlier in the week, Media Night took the place of Media Day, so that players’ interviews with journalists from around the globe could be aired in prime time. All these programs pull in more viewers and help build momentum.

What is the game’s impact on the host city and region?

It’s huge. This year, of course, the host community is the San Francisco Bay Area, which includes not only San Francisco but Oakland and San Jose. The site of the game is Levi’s Stadium, named after one of the corporate bulwarks of the region, apparel-maker Levi Strauss, a global brand in its own right. Appropriately for a venue nested in Silicon Valley, this is not only the newest but the most technologically advanced stadium in the NFL, with an emphasis on mobile accessibility for fans at the game. And Super Bowl City in downtown San Francisco has major interactive experiences along with a broad array of activities for fans of all ages. There’s also an important charitable side to this, with the host committee organizing the collection and distribution of donations from major companies in the area to needy local organizations.

A golden anniversary is by definition a special occasion in a person’s or company’s life. What are some of the things the NFL has done to recognize that?

Last December, I had a chance to get an inside view of some of these activities as co-head of an NFL event at Levi’s Stadium organized by the National Sports Marketing Network and featuring Peter O’Reilly, a 2002 Harvard MBA graduate and former student of mine who is now the NFL’s senior vice president for events. Throughout the football season, the league focused on activities with all 32 teams that emphasized its history and legacy. They gave golden footballs to former Super Bowl players and coaches, for example, and asked them to take them to their high schools, where they learned to play the game, and interact with current students and teachers. They also developed a distinctive and readily identifiable golden logo that uses the Arabic numeral 50 rather than the traditional Roman numeral – a number they could also incorporate, along with a golden stripe, on the 50-yard line of every field in the league. Fear not, friends of Latin, the Roman numeral LI will return to next year’s Super Bowl.

Finally, professor, where will you be watching the game?

I will be watching at home, probably with some friends, and as usual, I will have a pad of paper in hand, taking detailed notes on all the commercials, because the next day I will go into my Harvard Business of Sports class and discuss this year’s offerings in detail – not as aesthetic creations but as advertising and marketing vehicles. That’s my idea of a really good time. Those who watch all these commercials should be aware that the single largest product category isn’t beer or cars; it’s promos for the host network, promoting its programming for the week, month, and season ahead. When I ask that question in class, practically no one has noticed.

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