Lessons Learned From The 2018 Super Bowl (As We Approach The 2019 Game)

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

The first lesson learned from the lead-up to last year’s Super Bowl is that many of the same subjects and comments from previous years again attracted media attention, regardless of the Roman numerals used to designate the number of years that the game has been in existent. (If you don’t believe that history repeats, watch this year’s Super Bowl promotions and commentary of players, coaches and National Football League personnel. Only the teams and people sometimes change. The comments remain the same.)

Lessons Learned From The 2018 Super BowlThe second lesson that I can safely predict is that the NFL’s official hullabaloo of this year’s Super Bowl, Roman numeral LIII, on February 3 between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, will once again downplay the brutality of football and the uncaring attitude of team owners and NFL executives: Broadcasters will label team owners as “fine gentlemen.” Coaches will be praised as if they invented the cure for male baldness by media flunkies, especially the broadcast “journalists.” But the legit media coverage will say otherwise.

But flash! Before we look more closely at last year’s Lessons Learned from the 2018 Super Bowl, here’s a new Lesson Learned in time for this year’s game: With alcoholic beverage advertising such a big partner of the NFL (and other professional sports) – popular too with the athletes, history shows – it was only natural that the NFL recently partnered with Caesars Entertainment, making the gaming business the first “Official Casino Sponsor of the NFL.” (I’m willing to bet a few acres of the farm that it won’t be the last NFL gambling tie-in.)

Below are some other Lessons Learned from last year’s spectacle:

  • The harmful health affects from playing football will always receive major overage.
  • Because of President Trump’s remarks regarding saluting the flag, politics is now in football’s DNA.
  • Parents and some NFL players, are against their children playing football.
  • The days of the always growing NLF TV ratings are past.
  • The luster of the big game TV commercials might also have past, according to reviews of last and previous year’s commercial reviews. (In my opinion, they were always overrated; hyped by advertising trade writers.)
  • More people tuned in the half-time show than watched the football game. (Not an unusual occurrence.)

The dangers of playing football were the main focus of reporters during the days leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl (as it will be prior to this year’s game). Already the New York Times, earlier this year on January 19, ran a huge editorial detailing the physical damage to those who play “America’s Game.”)

Another NYT’s article, on January 20, revealed that while you’re eating, drinking and celebrating the big hits, be aware that you’re also witnessing another life-threatening football-related condition encouraged by the NFL that was heretofore largely kept in the locker room: Obesity. While coaches do not want players to get concussions, they encourage linemen to bulk up in order to play in the NFL, as the NYT reported in a huge three page story. Because of the “gain to play” requirements, NFL linemen have higher rates of hypertension, obesity and sleep apnea then other players or the general public. As the Times reported, “blocking for a $25-million-a-year quarterback, it turns out, can put linemen in the high risk category for many of the ailments health experts readily encourage people to avoid.” (Advice to young football players: Don’t do it. No matter what coach says.) . (The NFL credo should be, “Don’t worry about your health. Worry about the quarterback.”)

Those two stories, I confidently predict, will be the first of many such stories leading up to the 2019 Super Bowl.

Below are a few examples of health-related newspaper stories from 2018.

The first of many media stories about concussions that the NFL would rather have not been reported last year occurred on January 13, when a  New York Times article chronicled how the family of Mike Webster is struggling financially because they haven’t received any money from a settlement that awards money to players injured from chronic encephalopathy traumatic (CTE). Ironically, Webster, the former Pittsburg Steelers star, was the first NFL player to receive a diagnosis of the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated concussions. It was his death in 2002 that led to the NFL agreeing to compensate players who were injured by hits to the head. “Yet 15 years after his death, and two years after the courts cleared the way for a settlement that would pay an estimated $1 billion to retired players, Webster’s survivors continue to struggle financially” the Times story said, because players who died before January 1, 2006, were exempted from receiving payments from the settlement. (But, as usual, the broadcasters of NFL games still talk about the “gentlemen and greatness of team owners, despite their condoning the league’s actions over many decades of trying to dispute scientific evidence and  attempting to destroy a leading CTE researcher’s career.) 

Then in the January 20-21 edition of the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed titled “How to Save Football Players’ Brains” was authored by Dr. Paul S. Auerbach, a professor of emergency medicine at Stanford, who was a team physician during high school, college and professional football games.

And the NYT’s, on January 31, ran an article regarding the annual conference of USA Football, the national governing body for amateur American football in the United States. The conference featured speakers extolling the benefits of playing football and downplayed the dangers of playing the game. One speaker, according to the story, was Mike Murphy, chief executive of the Green Bay Packers, who said, “The liberal media has got football in its crosshairs.(Some scientists believe that the game of football has player’s brains in its crosshairs.) USA Football is supported by the NFL.

On Super Bowl Sunday, which in 2018 was on February 4, the NYT ran several stories related to the big game. One was headlined, “Despite the N.F.L.’s Problems, Fans Can’t Look Away.” Part of the story was about the Boys & Girls Club in Marshall, Texas, discontinuing its tackle football program. Another article was headlined, “Parents Fret, So League Takes Case To Children.” The story told how the NFL. has teamed with “Nickelodeon” to promote football.

But the most forceful article appeared in the papers “Sunday Review,” by-lined by Emily Kelly, the wife of former player Rob Kelly. In a huge article titled, “Football Destroyed My Husband’s Mind,” she told of the changes in her husband personality, from a caring individual, to a person she didn’t recognize, caused by playing football.

Along with newspaper articles regarding health issues associated with playing football, stories about players unsportsmanlike off-the-field conduct are reviewed during the lead up to the Super Bowl. This year, on January 22, the NYT reminded people that a video was released showing Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs shoving and kicking a woman. Even though Hunt was released by the Chiefs, the NFL once again was criticized for taking insufficient action against player’s off-the-field violence.

The lead-up to last year’s Super Bowl was not a happy time for sports marketing sponsors, advertising agencies and TV execs. The WSJ reported in a newsletter on January 4 that “The final scores are in. The average audience for NFL games in the recently completed regular season was 14.9 million, down 9.7% from a year ago.” And in his January 24 Op-Ed column, NYT’s columnist Frank Bruni wrote, “The size of audiences for Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games shrunk again this season.”

In addition, the WSJ’s CMO column on, February. 2, reported on a new WSJ and NBC News poll. “Fans’ interest is waning and parents increasingly want their children to turn away from football, amid worries about player safety,” the survey revealed, and showed that of “men ages 18 to 49, just 51% say they follow the league closely, down from 75% four years ago.” A huge expanded story appeared in the paper’s February. 3-4 edition.

The poll was cited again in a February 6 WSJ story that reported the game averaged 103.4 million viewers on NBC. The Nielsen ratings showed 7.1% less TV viewers than in 2017, making the Pats-Eagles Super Bowl game the least watched since 2009.

Perhaps the most disheartening none financial news for the execs who make their living hawking that “football is America” occurred during the lead-up to the Super Bowl, when on the TV show “Jeopardy” on February 1 one of the subjects was “Talking’ Football.” Throughout the category of basic questions, all of the contestants kept their hands off the buzzers, astonishing quizmaster Alex Trebek.

Of course, because of Trump’s s.o.b. remarks about players peacefully protesting during the national anthem, politics is now in the Super Bowls DNA.

A few examples connected to last year’s Super Bowl.

  • AMVETS said that the NFL rejected a program ad asking Americans to please stand during the national anthem.
  • (WCCO/AP) reported “Several civil rights groups in the Twin Cities announced plans to “take a knee” against police brutality, racism and corporate exploitation on Super Bowl Sunday.”
  • As if declining TV football viewership wasnt’enough of a headache for sponsors and the networks, two CNBC commissioned surveys said that half of Americans said they’ll watch the Super Bowl but about a fifth said they won’t watch because of politics.
  • Not surprisingly, because Trump always makes statements that are untrue, he tweeted the following at 8:39 AM – Sep 5, 2018: “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG.!” Actually, while still not as robust as in the past, NFL ratings crept up a bit this season and Nike sales since the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign have soared. (Observation: The uber-patriot Trump obviously didn’t find love of the flag until after he received five draft deferments to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.)

President Trump’s finger prints are all over the Super Bowl. In addition to his S.O.B. remark regarding football players protesting racial inequality, and some entertainers saying they will not entertain offers to participate at the half-time show because of the president’s remarks, if the government shut down isn’t settled by February 3, Super Bowl LIII could be the first major sporting event in more than two decades held during a government shutdown, according to USA TODAY.

The nonsensical journalism reporting facets of the lead-up to last year’s Super Bowl (what I call “flufforama”) officially began on January 21, when CBS began promoting a TV special about football players off-the-field talents called, “MVP, The Most Valuable Performer,” proving that just when you think TV has hit a low, there’s always another new low.

Then, on January 26, the “Today” show commenced with its “Super Bowl Commercial Kickoff,” during which everyday a new commercial was televised. (Sort of a pre-conditioning regimen for the almost four hour-long big game’s none-stop barrage of tedious commercials during a telecast that has only about 11 minutes of actual football played.)

Here are several other stories that the media felt merited coverage during last year’s Super Bowl week.

  • On January 24, USA TODAY headlined a story, “Passing asteroid won’t wreck Super Bowl,” even though calculations showed that the asteroid “has no chance – zero – of colliding with Earth on Feb. 4 or any time over the next 100 years.” (What a relief! I already sent in my money for the 2119 season tickets.)
  • Also on January 24, The Deseret and others news outlets, ran a story about predictions by Alexa and Siri. (I lost money by not taking their predictions seriously and instead followed the advice of “expert” football writers and analysts.)
  • On the same day, CBS reported that “Dottie’s Donuts in Philadelphia has stopped selling Boston cream donuts, sending a clear message to New England” And Esplanade Park in Boston “is shunning some Philly favorites” including Philadelphia cream cheese and Philly cheese steaks. (The clear winner in this stand-off was your cholesterol readings.)
  • On January. 26, the Daily Mail ran a story titled, “Dressed for Success: Patriots opt to wear their white uniforms for Super Bowl LII, joining 12 of the last 13 Lombardi Trophy winners.” (White after Labor Day for football players? Questionable. Blood on the uniforms will stand out. ) Of course, this was followed by stop the press stories about the Eagles decision to wear green uniforms.
  • Another stop the presses and TV feeds for a breaking news story on ESPN, February 1, was about the distance passes would travel if they were converted from yards to miles, only to be outdone on February. 2, when they aired a segment asking which is the better sandwich, Philly cheese steaks or lobster roll. (I’ll pass. Just give me a Coney Island hot dog or lox on a New York City)

Of course, to the people who make the Super Bowl telecast possible, the sports marketers and the networks, the outcome of the game is far from the most important element. What really counts for these folks is the size of the TV audience, the cost of the commercials and the reception they receive. (One sure bet from experience: Even before sales figures or audience attitudes are in, sponsors of the 2019 Super Bowl will say, “We’re pleased with the reception of our ads.” Another sure bet, based on my many years of being involved with mega sporting events: What sponsors say publicly about their association with mega sporting events is not necessarily what they say privately.)

One last point before tuning in to this year’s Super Bowl: If you want to make sports marketers, CBS and the NFL happy, while you’re watching the big game on February 3, follow their advice and  stock up on league-sanctioned junk food (so good for your arteries); wash it down with football-sanctioned alcoholic beverages (so good for your liver), and don’t hesitate to place a wager on the game’s outcome, (encouraged by the NFL’s new gambling partners). And be thankful that your child or husband is just acting silly instead of getting their brains scrambled by the big hit, so beloved by the team’s owner-gentlemen (it’s not their brains turning to mush), and don’t forget that that when the TV cameras pan the sidelines to show the coaches you’re seeing all knowing geniuses (at least according to game broadcasters).

For the past few years, I’ve noticed a diminishing amount of the news budget given to the hype stories, replaced by articles regarding the politics, health issues and financial aspects related to the game. That certainly doesn’t make sports marketers and PR firms, whose jobs it is to extend the shelve life of the TV commercials and assorted promotions that cost millions of dollars, happy.

But there is still plenty of fluff covered by reporters. So when an editor asks me, “Where’s the news in your pitch” I can reply, “Please switch my call to your Super Bowl reporting team.”


Arthur Solomon -Lessons Learned From The 2018 Super Bowl  (As We Approach The 2019 Game)About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.

 

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