The 2021 Super Bowl once again proved four things that are already known, even though sports marketers, their advertising and PR firms, the networks and the National Football League don’t want to admit – at least publicly:
- The game, as are all mega sporting events, are magnets for negative publicity, and
- The efficacy of the multi-million dollars of creating and promoting a TV commercial and buying broadcast time for it might result in zilch, and
- Marketing experts say its impossible to determine if it was money well spent, and
- People associated with the Super Bowl (and all mega sporting events) live in a fantasy word.
But last year, the fantasy world the NFL attempts to create around the Super Bowl didn’t materialize but the negative publicity remained a reality.
The weeks leading up to the Super Bowl usually are filled with news reports about the negative health affects on players who have suffered serious injuries from playing the game. Last year, because so much coverage was devoted to how sports entities, including the Super Bowl organizers, would react to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were fewer stories detailing the post-football health problems of individual players.
Also, in pre-Covid-19 days, news coverage for the days before a Super Bowl would be devoted to stories about the teams, its players, coaches, the TV commercials, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s statements and football pundit’s pre-game analysis.
Not so last year, or at least not nearly as much.
For days leading up to the Super Bowl, health officials warned of the dangers of Super Bowl parties being Covid-19 spreaders.
And in its SportsSaturday section on February 6, the New York Times lead story was a full page article detailing how the Seattle Seahawks, a team that did not qualify for the Super Bowl, was the only one of the 32 NFL teams to complete the season virus free.
The same day in its main news section, the Times also featured a full page article about the Super Bowl. But the story wasn’t about the game. It was headlined, “Tampa’s test: Keep Big Game From Turning Into the Covid Bowl.”
But that didn’t mean a complete absence of coverage about the dangers of playing football. A few:
The prime example of negative publicity occurred on February 3, a few days prior to the February 7 Super Bowl, when ABC-TV on its Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline and on its ABC daily news podcast reported that two former Black players accused the league of discriminating against them because they are Black when requesting financial assistance because of medical problems developed from playing football.
On January 13, Yahoo!Sports ran a story titled, “The NFL and Nickelodeon made football kid-friendly. In light of concussions, is that wise?” The story quoted an NFL announcer comparing a hard hit to the head similar to a youngster scraping a knee at recess and getting up and continuing to play, which got Dr. Kathleen Bashynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College, to tweet, “It’s 2021. How are announcers still describing potential brain injury symptoms in this way?! Getting up slowly after hitting your head is not just like scraping your knee at recess. What a message to send to child viewers. Utterly irresponsible.” “A spokesperson from the NFL referred Yahoo to its Player Health & Safety fact sheet outlining its concussion protocol, including a five-step process for returning to the field. (It did not include instructions how to treat a scraped knee.)
Chris Nowinski, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, a former Harvard all Ivy League defensive tackle, professional World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and co-founder of the Boston University CTE Center, tweeted about the announcer comparing a hit to the head to scraping a knee, “NFL Nickelodeon broadcast was worse than I expected. Announcer, after Taysom Hill hit his head: “[He is] getting up a little slowly. It’s like scraping your knee at recess. You get banged up; you get back up, and you go out there and play another down. That’ll get kids killed.”
The Athletic also ran an article on the Nickelodeon broadcast on January 11, titled, ‘Modern-day Joe Camel’: Did Nickelodeon broadcast gloss over NFL’s violence?’
One sure bet: You won’t see the above stories on the official NFL website or in their press releases.
A publicity victim of Covid-19, was the Super Bowl tradition that sport marketers and their PR arms always took for granted as a vehicle for obtaining plugs for products. It was Radio Row, where stations from around the country lined up and athletes and celebrities representing various sponsors were interviewed in exchange for a product plug. In normal times about 100 stations set up shop for the pre-game interviews. Last year less than 40 showed up.
As usual, whether the cost of a Super Bowl commercial is worth the expense depends on who a sponsor listens to:
The CMO Today column in the February 19, 2021, Wall Street Journal contained “maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t” help examples.
It reported that one marketing professor said that there is evidence that Super Bowl ads can generate business. But another study, from a graduate school of business, concluded that when two major brands advertise similar products during the game, any marketing advantage might be lost.
As has been said many times by marketing specialists, it’s impossible to say which ad was most successful because of the many ways they are measured, providing each marketer to claim that their ad was the most effective.
Sports marketers who advertised on the 2021 Super Bowl, despite what they might say publicly, had to be disappointed. TV ratings between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the game, and the Kansas City Chiefs were the lowest since 2007, with about 96.4 million viewers, a 5.5% drop from the 102 million from the previous year.
Merriam-Webster dictionary describes “la la land’ as a euphoric, dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life. And that definition applies to individuals to are associated with sports events as well as fanatics.
A prime example of an individual living in “la la land” was Sean McManus’s quote about last year’s Super Bowl two days prior to the game in the February 5 New York Times. McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, which televised the game, said, “I think America needs this Super Bowl. I think it’s an opportunity for the country to come together. I think it’s going to be uplifting. I think it’s going to be unifying. And I think it’s coming at the right time. He made this statement during a pandemic that was killing thousands of Americans each week, with a Senate presidential impeachment trial a day away and with the country at loggerheads about political issues unseen since the Civil War. Obviously, as the dip in TV ratings showed, America didn’t agree with him.
Who ever at the NFL office thought of having a video featuring Vince Lombardi as part of the Super Bowl telecast also lives in “la la land.” The Vince Lombardi Trophy is awarded each year to the winning team of the Super Bowl. But the former coach has been dead since 1970 and I wonder how many of today’s fans were moved by a Lombardi video. One thing I’m willing to bet the farm on is that the players in the NFL aren’t moved by a tribute to Lombardi, even if they know of his accomplishments, which is doubtful. They’re more interested in racial equality, health issues and being able to survive in the NFL for more than three years, the average career span of a player, than football history.
The media coverage of the 2021 Super Bowl also revealed another break from previous years. Perhaps because of the Covid-19 situation, stories about players’ brains being damaged from concussions, which were usually bunched in the lead-up to the game, were spread throughout the year.
Seemingly, the same pattern is being followed prior to the 2022 contest between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals on February 13. Stories are being reported as they occur. The New York Times, in its February 19, 2021, edition reported about the family of Vincent Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, who was found dead in a Florida hotel room donating his brain to Boston University researchers to determine if he had chromic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), the disease believed to lead to degenerative brain disease because of hits to the head.
On March 10, the New York Times reported on the on-going dispute about Black players claiming that they were discriminated against because the league used different methods from white players when evaluating dementia-related payments. A follow-up story appeared on March 18.
One constant regarding the NFL that is with us throughout the year is the dangers of playing football. But a new medical study said the dangerous health aspects might now also include spectators at the games, who have been infected with Covid-19.
According to a New York Times story on April 7, research submitted to the scientific journal The Lancet said that “there was a link between the games that had large numbers of fans in the stands and an increase in the number of infections in locales near the stadiums.” The report was again referenced in an April 29 Times article. Of course, as they did for many years when the league denied an existence between concussions and brain damage the NFL debunked the study.
But on December 14, an article in the Times reverted to the dangers of playing football. It reported that “The posthumous brain examination of Phillip Adams, a 32-year-old retired journeyman N.F.L. player who shot and killed six people before dying by suicide in April, revealed that he had an “unusually severe” form of C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with a history of repeated hits to the head.”
The article by Jonathan Abrams said “Dr. Ann McKee, director of the C.T.E. Center at Boston University, said an examination of Adams’s brain showed significantly dense lesions in both frontal lobes, an abnormally severe diagnosis for a person in his 30s that most nearly resembled that of Aaron Hernandez, a former New England Patriots tight end who was 27 years old when he died by suicide after being convicted of a 2013 murder.”
And on December 16, an article by Ken Belson in the Times referred to the death of Vincent Jackson, who “had a growing family” and” flush bank account from his sterling 12-year N.F.L. playing career.”
“Doctors at the C.T.E. Center at Boston University have determined that Jackson had a “mild” form of the disease, which is associated with repeated hits to the head,” said the article. “C.T.E. has an array of symptoms, including memory loss, trouble managing daily chores and mood swings, which Jackson’s wife, Lindsey, said he exhibited with growing frequency in and after the 2016 N.F.L. season, his final one.”
Also on December 16, Ben Shpigel of the Times reported that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., has been found in the brains of more than 315 former N.F.L. players. “The group includes 24 players who died in their 20s and 30s, according to Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and the director of the C.T.E. Center at Boston University,” said the story.
An Op-Ed in the January 30 Times by Jay Caspian Kang, a former editor at the sports website Grantland, said that “Genuine alarm about brain trauma has been replaced by a type of theater,” where wobbly players are escorted to the blue medical tent “with the implicit understanding that the player will probably be back in a week or two.” “The league has talked about head injuries for decades…but there has been nothing that would qualify as drastic action,” wrote Kang.
The many players who have lost their lives or had life-altering injuries from playing the game will always be a stain on the NFL despite how hard its tries to downplay the violent nature of football. A case in point was the 2021 pre-game telecast leading up to the actual game. It seemed more like a sermon on brotherhood than a football game. Honoring Covid-19 heroes and urging Americans to heal their political divides, worthy as they are, seemed more like a PR attempt of an entity to erase its bad conduct rap sheet and recast itself as a good corporate citizen.
But it will take more than several minutes of a telecast for the NFL to erase the stain on its heritage ingrained by its decades long denial of concussions causing brain injuries and its current forgiving of players with multiple serious legal problems as long as they could still play the game, an example of which was the glorification of Antonio Brown’s play in last year’s game by CBS broadcasters Jim Nance and Tony Romo, without mentioning the player’s considerable anti-social legal problems.
A must-read story after last year’s game by Ken Belson in the February 8 New York Times detailed much better than I can the NFL’s attempt to camouflage its sordid history.
Headlined ‘At the Super Bowl, the N.F.L.’s Social Message Is Muddled.’ The few words from it below do not do it justice.
In part. wrote Belson, “The N.F.L. espoused racial unity and praised health care workers. But its inaction on racial diversity, its stereotypic imagery and its decision to host a potential superspreader event said something different.”
When it comes to topics like race, health and safety, the league’s certainty dissolves into a series of mixed messages, read the article.
“For all the N.F.L.’s feel-good words and gestures to this moment in American history at the Super Bowl, and its attempts to use football to try to bring the nation together, the league’s carefully crafted message risked being muddled by its actions,” wrote Belson.
Even though Belson’s article was written after the 2021 Super Bowl, it might have been written on February 1, 2022 because on the same day that quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement the league was sued by Brian Flores, who last month was fired as coach of the Miami Dolphins. Flores “sued the NFL. and its 32 teams alleging that they have discriminated against him and other Black coaches in their hiring,” according to published reports.
News articles leading up to the 2022 Super Bowl provided a valuable lessons to PR pros: Never back yourself into a situation that might come back to bite you. A story in the December 16 New York Times was headlined “N.F.L. Embraces Gambling and a Las Vegas Super Bowl. It wasn’t to many years ago, the article by Ken Belson reported, “The announcement, which the league made at its quarterly owners meeting Wednesday, would have produced scrutiny and surprise just a few years ago because of the N.F.L.’s long-held opposition to betting on games, and the many rules which prohibited players and league personnel from being associated with casinos. But in the last four years, the N.F.L.’s icy approach to the city has quickly melted.”
In the January 31 edition, sports columnist Kurt Streeter chronicled how addictive betting on sports can be and how the N.F.L. sports leagues and media companies “walk in step with the casinos, all the way to the bank with multi-million dollar partnerships.” And on February 4, economic columnist Peter Coy pointed out “that gambling is especially pernicious. and it’s the only non-substance-related addiction recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013 and compared gambling ads during the Super Bowl to “like putting trays of loose cigarettes on every coffee table in America and telling ex-smokers, well, you don’t have to smoke if you don’t want to.’ (The leagues that permit alcoholic and gambling ads on its telecasts have tag lines that say “Drink” or “Bet” Responsibly. The leagues obviously don’t take that advice seriously, but you should.)
Over the years, because of the violent nature of the game, the Super Bowl has been a magnet for attracting negative stories. Originally all the stories were about the adverse health affects on being concussed. Then the stories branched out into racism in the league, how abusive individuals can get after losing a wager and taking it out on their wives at home or spectators leaving a stadium. Then two nurses reported how a person’s health was affected by eating all the junk food at Super Bowl parties and this year exposed the dangers to TV audiences because of the league’s tie-in with gambling businesses. Also on January 31, another new element was written about in the Times: It told how producers of the half-time shows misled no-pay volunteer dancers regarding what they would have to do.
So what TV viewers watching the over-hyped game on February 13, and who sit through the approximately 12 minutes of actual football action, interrupted by about an hour of commercials costing as much as $6-million for 30 seconds – the remaining time consists of broadcaster’s opening remarks before the kick-off, team huddles and time outs, players being tended to after they are injured, the half-time show, and the pre-game and after game ceremonies –should remember is that the Lombardi Trophy awarded to the team that wins is not the one most coveted by NFL players and their teams. Most coveted are the unofficial “get out of jail” trophies that the league has handed out to countless players, coaches and team executives over the years.
Perhaps when new word definitions are added to dictionaries in the future, “Controversy and hypocrisy “will be described as “a fundamental element of the National Football League.”
I’m not a person who normally tells people what to do with their money. But here’s a bit of advice: If you plan on betting on the Super Bowl, do not place your bets until shortly before kick-off time. Covid-19 and its variants, and not the coaches and players, might dictate the winner.
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 was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com