Lessons That Sports Marketers, And Everyone, Should Have Learned From The 2019 Super Bowl (As We Approach The 2020 Game)

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Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

A credible argument can be made that the Super Bowl craze began, not because it featured two teams battling for the U.S.A. Concussion Football Championship, but because it was touted by marketing, advertising writers, PR and ad agencies and TV commentators as featuring the best, most, enjoyable products of the advertising industry – TV commercials with superior creativeness and entertainment value – as well as shameful hype from sports writers. Cynics not associated with the promotion of the game and telecast believe that the commercials were never so superior. (Once in a while there was a brilliant spot). But what is actually responsible for the massive media hype is the cost of the commercials.

Lessons That Sports Marketers, And Everyone, Should Have Learned From The 2019 Super Bowl There have been many Lessons Learned by marketers who have shelled out the Big Bucks so their commercials can be seen during the Super Bowl and, hopefully, have enough legs to receive extended media coverage. Unfortunately for marketers, PR people and ad agencies, for the past decade or so more news worthy events than the cost of a TV spot have often over shadowed the commercials, as it did during the lead-up to last years telecast, when the cost of a 30 second spot was reported to be in excess of $5-million, as it will again this year.

Politics, violence against women by NFL players and health matters related to football are subjects that both sports marketers and the NFL would rather not be the subjects of news stories during Super Bowl week (or any other time). But as the football family and President Trump has learned the media doesn’t give into the wants of powerful people, either in the White House or in the NFL’s commissioner’s office, and all three subjects received major media attention in 2019, as they again did in the lead-up to the 2020 game between. the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on February. 2.

As usual, there will be many lessons that sports marketers will learn from this year’s Super Bowl. But unexpectedly there was three idiosyncratic lessons learned just a couple of weeks after last year’s game, one that dated back to 2018. They concerned the relationships between employer, employees, public relations practitioners and the media. 

Lesson 1Not even Bob Costas, the longtime voice of NBC Sports for nearly 40 years, could escape employer punishment for expressing his opinion about the concussion problem in the NFL. Because of his comments, he was removed from the 2018 Super Bowl, he said, and subsequently left the network in early 2019.

Lesson 2 – The second lesson should be remembered by employers: The more powerful you are in the business world, the greater the media coverage when a wrong doing is exposed. An example was the headline coverage on February 22-23 regarding New England Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft being charged in a sex sting, which he has denied.

Lesson 3 – This one relates to people in our businesses, who work for individuals or entities that have been involved in PR crises, like Mr. Kraft: Despite the work of self-designated PR crises specialists, once a reputation is lost, it will forever be remembered by the media in subsequent stories of the same nature. (Believe me, Mr. Kraft will long be remembered in football circles for reasons other than his team winning Super Bowls.)

Of course, there were loads of lessons that are more mundane than the above ones:

Despite not knowing what the efficacy of the mega-costly TV commercials will be, along with the number of concussions and other bodily injuries players might receive during the 2020 game, one thing is certain: The Super Bowl will always provide lessons for sports marketers.

Here are some of the most important ones from 2019:

  • Arguably the most important one for marketers is that politics in now ingrained in the Super Bowl’s DNA, as it is in all entities and individuals who have experienced a PR crisis, because of President Trump’s S.O.B. remarks about football players who kneel during the National Anthem and the NFL’s obvious blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick for fomenting the kneel strategy as a means of highlighting racial injustice. Try as the NFL and marketers may, it’s now impossible to separate the NFL from politics. Even though Kaepernick was not on the field during the 2019 game, his presence was felt during the lead-up to and on Super Bowl day: A barrage of news stories contained quotes from entertainers explaining their positions about not taking part in Super Bow activities. And during the game, Kaepernick posted pictures of athletes and celebrities supporting him.
  • All the hype didn’t stop the media from questioning NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about violence against women committed by NFL players, specifically, Kareem Hunt, the Kansas City Chief’s running back, and the San Francisco’s 49 ers Reuben Foster.
  • While the NFL and its sponsors attempted to flood the media with “Super Bowl Fun Facts,” there are other statistics that they would rather not have received coverage: The mental and physical damage to their gladiators – the football players – both during their active careers and after. What has become a staple of the lead-up to the Super Bowl is media coverage detailing the physical dangers to those who play “America’s Sport.” And 2019 was no exception.

Here are several examples:

  • The first major article I noticed regarding the negative life altering affects of playing football caught me by surprise because of where it appeared – not on the sports pages or medical columns, but as a huge lead editorial in the January 19 New York Times. The author, Alex Kingsbury, cited examples, of injuries to players and research from medical journals that should be required reading by every parent before deciding whether to let their child participate in what should not be called a game. Astonishingly, the article also quoted New England quarterback Tom Brady as saying, “Your body gets used to the hits…my brain is wired for contact. I would say in some ways it has become callous to the hits,”(making me think Brady took one hit too many). 
  • Then, surprisingly, a new element that described the adverse health affects from playing football at all levels was reported on January 20 in the NYT. It was about how high school, college and NFL coaches encourage linemen to gain weight so they can better protect the quarterback from pass rushing defensive players. The story, headlined “The N.F.L.’S Other Scourge: Obesity” described how coaches encourage obesity, a life-threatening condition, by telling linemen to bulk up in order to play in the NFL. 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. On Super Bowl weekend, the Times published two articles that detailed the horrific nature of what is dishonestly called a game, when rightly it should be called legalized assault.
  • On February 2, a two page article beginning on page one of SportsSaturday told how a former NFL player’s anxiety about his worsening C.T.E. symptoms caused him to commit suicide. The next day, beginning on page one of SportsSunday, another huge article told of how football players become addicted to painkillers, so they can continue playing, and then how the craving follows them when their career ends. (President Trump and football controversy seem as tied together as are laces and shoes. In a Super Bowl day “Face The Nation” interview, when asked if he would want his son to play football, he said “Would I steer him that way? No, I wouldn’t. I just don’t like the reports that I see coming out   having to do with football. It’s a dangerous sport and I would have a hard time with it,” he said. Trump is the second president who voiced misgivings about having their sons play football. Obama said that if he had a son, he would not let him play football.)
  • An article by nutritionists at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, MN, said pizza, fully loaded nachos and fried chicken wings are among some of the most popular, yet most fat-laden offenders, at Super Bowl parties. They all have around 800-1,000 calories and about 50 g of fat in a typical party-sized portion. For example, two pieces of all-meat pizza contain 940 calories and 56 g of fat. (A meal that only people who have stock in makers of cholesterol -lowering meds might endorse.)

    As the above article revealed, the lead-up to the 2019 game showed how damaging to a person’s health football can be to individuals who never even played a down and watch it on TV. Instead of being subjected to the big life-altering hits on the grid iron, the food served at Big Game parties can do the damage to internal body mechanisms. 

    Football has been called “America’s Game,” baseball it’s “National Pastime.” Both have a checkered marketing history, which includes proud sponsorships from tobacco, all sorts of alcoholic beverages and foods that health experts deem unhealthy. So it’s only natural that the 2019 game ushered in another activity that is detrimental to many Americas – legalized betting.

    “Now fans are able to play the game within the game,” Lisa Kerney, formerly of ESPN, was quoted as saying in a January 30 Times story. Now part of a sports betting show, Kerney, the Times reported, now “rattles off N.F.L. point spreads and money-line odds as easily as a CNBC host talks stock prices and P/E ratios.” Also during the 2019-2020 season New York’s Fox 5 shamefully sold time to DRAFTKINGSSPORTSBOOK, a half-hour tutorial on how to bet on-line. Missing from the show’s script is a line saying that “anyone who has bet at a casino or with a bookie knows the house always wins.” (I’m certainly not puritanical in my beliefs. I’ve done my share of gambling and enjoying an occasional drink. But I find it hypocritical and deceitful to have sports leagues hawk their charitable activities and position athletes as role models and then permit products that can be detrimental to viewers’ before, after or on game telecasts, knowing that a large part of their audience are youngsters or other impressionable  people.)

    As usual, there was the always debates over the goal of Super Bowl ads: Is it to build brand awareness or drive product sales? Leslie Zane, founder and president of Triggers Growth Strategy, argued in an op-ed for Ad Age that Super Bowl ads should lead to sales and that far too many advertisements during the Big Game aren’t built to actually change brand preference.

    An article in the Wall Street Journal revealed that even self-designated marketing experts disagree about commercial strategy. Some brands think commercials are more impactful by keeping them under wraps until they are seen on the Super Bowl telecast. Other specialists advise releasing the ads before the telecast so the brand can get the most free viewings of them

    Clients and the creators of Super Bowl TV commercials also hope that their multi-million dollar ads will long be remembered by consumers and the media after the game. That’s what Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light brew ad achieved, ever since its commercial disparaged Miller Life and Coors Light for using corn syrup in its brewing process. The “my beer is better than your beer” ad battle resulted in MillerCoors suing Bud Light for misleading advertising.

    Newspaper articles regarding negative aspects of playing football, like the ones above before the 2019 game, usually begin a few weeks before the Super Bowl. But in 2019, on November 8, months before the February 2, 2020 kickoff, the New York Times launched a series about “footballs hold on America.” which included articles about the dangers to players’ health associated with playing football and other societal aspects of the game.

    Examples of negative football articles leading up to the 2020 Super Bowl:

    • The initial article told of the decline of participants in high school football and a meeting of NFL executives in 2017 that tried to create a strategy to save the game. The story said that “Over the last decade, the numbers of high school boys playing tackle football –  the heart and soul of the sport – has dropped  more than 10 percent.”
    • On November 13, the Times reported on how “More Players Question Injury Treatment.” The story told how players are now questioning treatment by team physicians and are seeking second opinions.
    • In an Op-Ed in the December 8 New York Times, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown wrote that the National Football League is far behind the National Basketball Association in providing adequate pensions and medical insurance for players who helped build the sport, resulting in some past players not having enough money to cover their football associated medical bills.
    • On December 12, the New York Times published an article about researchers at Stamford University who are trying to develop a football helmet filled with water that can prevent brain injuries. The story included the following quote: “My fear is that a better helmet will give false reassurance,” said Dr. Lee Goldstein, a psychiatrist and researcher with the T.E. Center at Boston University, which has carried out pioneering research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head. “It’s like developing a better cigarette filter. It’s smoother and it might not give you a hacking cough. But you still get lung cancer.”
    • “An exceptional special Times article on December 19, and updated on December 22, about the NFL at 100 by James Surowiecki included the following graphs: “Fans express outrage about the threat of brain damage to their heroes, so there must be at least a feigned effort at reducing hits. Where the league once celebrated violence, it now plays it down.” …“Of course, it’s impossible these days to treat the N.F.L. as simple entertainment. Watching football is necessarily an exercise in cognitive dissonance: Enjoying a game requires us, on some level, to ignore everything we know about brain injuries, the shortness of most players’ careers and the physical toll the game takes on their bodies, the team owners’ intolerance for some social commentary and the disregard for domestic and sexual assaults.”
    • In its January 4, 2020, edition, the Times ran a feature about the how the NFL wraps itself around the flag. It detailed the history of how the NFL has attempted to make its product synonymous with patriotism, which is evident at every game. But the story included a few lines that the league, its networks, commentators and friendly sports journalists never mention: “Military personnel in uniform, fighter jet flyovers, field-size flags, and red, white and blue festooned N.F.L. jerseys have become part of the game’s landscape. Despite criticism from certain corners about politicizing the game, the league has continued to embrace symbols of patriotism. Certain teams even accepted money from the Department of Defensefor patriotic displays during games, with the league eventually returning more than $700,000 following an audit.”

      The Times wasn’t the only pub to print stories about injuries suffered by football players:

      • A study in Annals of Neurology,by a team of researchers from the Boston University CTE Center, published on October 7 and reported in numerous publications, said that for every year of playing football the risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) increases by 30 percent. And for every 2.6 years of play, the risk of developing CTE doubles, because of repeated head collisions.
      • The December 2-8 Sports Business Journal ran a full page article on lower extremity injuries that “have plagued players for years.”
      • Even articles extolling the virtues of football, like the one by Sam Walker in the December 21-22 Wall Street Journal, in which the author said that its “positive influence on kids will continue to outweigh the risks” if the right adjustments are made, noted the decline of high school participants in tackle football. The story included statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations showing last season football “suffered its steepest loss of players in 33 years.” The pro-football article also mentioned the dangers of repeated brain concussions.

      Even before the Times launched its “footballs hold on America”” series, stories about the negative health affect of playing football actually began in August, when a study published in Science Advances, a peer reviewed scientific journal, published an article regarding a study showing that even one season of playing football without a concussion can cause brain tissue damage. The results of the research, conducted with University of Rochester football players, received coverage in scientific and consumer pubs, including a August 20 New York Times article.

      Of course, the above were only a fraction of negative football stories that were published.

      (The sum of the negative articles? Football is not all fun and games. The message? With apologies to Waylon Jennings, “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be football players.”)

      The Times also ran an article on January 17 about how the seamy side of football is whitewashed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The impetus for the article was the announcement, on January 15, that Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner from 1989 to 2006, was voted to the Hall. To all but the most fervent football junkies, and, of course, the team owners, Tagliabue is remembered for his denial that football-related concussions can cause brain trauma and for having a non-brain specialist MD defend his position. The story also named past players that the Hall inducted, despite their having been suspended for unsavory conduct, or worse.

      And in a new variation of the Hail Mary pass, the Associated Press reported that the New Orleans Saints are going to court to keep the public from seeing hundreds of emails that allegedly show team executives doing public relations damage control for the area’s Roman Catholic archdiocese to help it contain the fallout from a burgeoning sexual abuse crisis.

      This year’s Super Bowl telecast will unveil new twists for viewers – the “Three-card Monte” or “Flimflam” advertising approach. The Wall Street Journal’s’ May 6 “CMO TODAY” column reported that the telecast will reduce the number of national commercial breaks per quarter from four to five, but the total amount  of ad time is not to be diminished. To put things in perspective: There were 49 minutes and 45 seconds of national commercials last year (2018).The actual amount of playing time in an NFL game is between 11- and 15 minutes.

      Also, in addition to TV viewers getting soused and filling their bodies with unhealthy foods during the commercial special known as the Super Bowl, there will be a new destructive element added for viewers: They will be able to bet on individual plays while having “just one more” and maybe get cancer, according to Japanese scientific study reported in the New York Times on December 24.

      As someone who has been involved in numerous mega sports marketing campaigns over the years – both nationally and internationally – but doesn’t bet on the outcomes, I can confidently predict, and be willing to put a few bucks on the following: 1 – Even before sales figures or audience surveys and attitudes are in, sponsors of the 2020 Super Bowl will say, “We’re pleased with the reception of our ads.” (Even if they’re not.) 2 – The Jennifer Lopez-Shakira  half-time show will draw a greater audience than the commercial-laden few minutes of actual football play, and, 3 – Despite marketers spending  more than $5-million dollars for 30 seconds of commercial time, all the ads will fall short of gaining the publicity that Michael

      Bloomberg’s one- minute national ad criticizing Donald Trump will receive. Both Bloomberg and the president announced on January 7 that they will advertise on the Super Bowl. From what I saw, Bloomberg’s announcement generated much more media coverage than the Trump disclosure.

      As soon as the Bloomberg-Trump commercials were made public, other advertisers became fearful that their ads would be shuffled to the practice squad, according to various news reports. And they were correct, as the pre-game publicity showed. So Fox decided to run the ads in close proximity to their own promotional ones. (In football terminology, that’s known as the “prevent defense.” But as football fans know, it often fails.) 

      The politicization of sports – especially the Super Bowl – is not a new story. Neither is the news that Facebook profits from permitting political lies on its site. What is new is a story that CNN broke on January  24 saying that, “President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has run more than 200 misleading political advertisements on Facebook in the past day claiming the “Fake News media” will attempt to block the campaign’s upcoming Super Bowl ad — despite federal regulations that require the TV spot be aired.” (Is it only a matter of time before Facebook will run NFL ads saying that new scientific proof shows that football concussions help improve cognitive ability.) 

      Advertising on the Super Bowl, or any mega sporting event, instead of doing more targeted advertising, is like shooting craps. You roll the dice and hope for the best.

      A sure to happen discussion about whether the cost of producing and publicizing a TV commercial is the best way for a marketer to advertise will surely occur after this year’s game. But on January 14, one opinion was already in: In her daily run-up to the Super Bowl advertising column, Jeanine Poggi, Ad Age’s senior editor,  reported that, “After advertising in both 2010 and 2000, the last two times the census was taken, the U.S. Census Bureau will not run a commercial in the 2020 game.” “It isn’t an efficient spend of tax payers’ dollars,” says Alex Hughes, census program director at VMLY&R, which is handling the bureau’s 2020 ad campaign.

      I’ve been told in confidence by some sports marketers who are pressured to advertise on sports mega events that they feel the same way as the census people. Before committing to advertise on next years Super Bowl at the very least brand managers should have their agencies present them with alternative options before agreeing to spend more than $5-million for a :30 spot.


      The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout 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.