It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and 15 first-time advertisers have decided to ante up the $150,000 per second required to roll the dice at the big kids’ table. Relatively unknown brands like Avocados from Mexico, Mophie and UCool join the more familiar Carnival Cruise Lines, Skittles candy and Always sanitary pads in making their big-game debuts. Super Bowl XLIX has the most newcomers since the dot-com boom bowl of 2000.
But while the class of 2000 represented the irrational exuberance of newly minted high rollers, the latest rush is being attributed to the high availability of ad space at a relatively late date. NBC, the host network of this year’s game, did not completely sell out advertising slots until the middle of this week, just days before the game. By contrast, Fox, which carried the game last year, sold all their available ad time about two months before kickoff.
A number of Super Bowl regulars, like several big automobile brands, are sitting out this year. Why? Officially, it’s a bad year for television ad sales, but that’s sort of a tautological answer — part of the reason it’s a bad year is because Super Bowl ads haven’t been selling as quickly.
Unofficially, however, it is suspected that many big brands have been reevaluating their relationship with the NFL.
Remember Ray Rice?
It is perhaps hard to see through the fortnight of fog that is “deflate-gate,” but before talk turned 24/7 to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s balls, the 2014 NFL season was defined by — if you can imagine — far less savory sideshows.
It was just last September when the Baltimore Ravens released running back Ray Rice. This was after a surveillance video surfaced that showed Rice in an elevator punching his then-fiancée (now his wife), knocking her unconscious.
After, but not right after.
Rice was arrested and charged with aggravated assault last February, but the team and the league fumbled its way through a series of inconsistently escalating responses, only suspending and cutting Rice after a second tape of the beating was aired by TMZ. Thing is, league officials had almost certainly seen or at least known about the more-graphic tape long before. And, at any rate, Rice had been indicted for third-degree assault in March.
Rice’s spousal abuse and the league’s calculated (or rather, miscalculated) response led to calls for the resignation of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell from sports journalists, women’s rights groups, advocates for victims of domestic violence and even members of Congress. One consistent defender of Goodell, however, was and continues to be Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.
Yes, those New England Patriots; the team taking on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks Sunday evening; the team suspected of deflating game footballs in violation of league rules.
Or, to use a term of art: cheating.
But really, the Patriots couldn’t have done anything nicer for Goodell and the NFL. Not so much Kraft’s support, but, rather, deflate-gate’s distraction.
Hall of shame?
But Ray Rice and, lest we forget, Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back suspended after a September indictment for beating his four-year-old son with a tree branch, or defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who was released by the San Francisco 49ers in December after a year with two separate allegations of abuse and sexual assault, are not the only men behind the curtain the NFL would like you to ignore. On the eve of Sunday’s game, the league announced its latest inductees to the NFL hall of fame, and among them is the late 10-time all-pro linebacker Junior Seau.
Seau played 20 seasons for the Sand Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Patriots before retiring in 2009. Seau died in 2012 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Though Seau left no suicide note, the manner in which he killed himself recalled other suicides by athletes known to suffer from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease seen in people with a history of concussions or other traumatic head injuries.
A bullet in the chest preserves the head for later examination, and an autopsy of Seau’s brain performed at the National Institutes of Health showed clear signs of CTE. Seau’s family is currently suing the NFL over the head injuries he suffered throughout his career.
Seau’s family has opted out of a $765 million settlement made between the NFL and a class of former players who suffered head trauma. But beyond what will likely be an underfunded payout and a few small rules changes, the league has dealt with the problem with a visible lack of urgency.
Though not with a lack of PR. While having spent years suppressing research on concussions and CTE, the NFL is now spending millions on a campaign to convince parents that it is still OK to let their kids play football. Through its non-profit USA Football, the league has been hosting “Moms Clinics” where former players and coaches teach mothers things like how to “tackle safely.”
Commissioner Goodell, himself, even participated in several Moms Clinics.
This campaign comes, ironically but not accidentally, at the same time a new Boston University School of Medicine study shows that NFL players who played youth football have a higher risk of long-term brain damage.
USA Football also sponsors “Heads Up Football,” which conducts one-on-one sessions and 90-minute online classes for coaches and trainers to teach good nutrition, hydration and ways to avoid concussions, like by learning how to “tackle safely.”
A concussion-delivery system
But given how late to the, uh, game the NFL was on admitting the problem of football-related head trauma, many see these clinics and classes as a token effort designed to soften the public relations blow and maintain a pipeline of talent and fans for the $10-billion-a-year business.
“The NFL’s marketing department continues to devise new ways to deflect attention from its past misdeeds and continues to devise schemes in an attempt to convince their national audience and parents that football can be made safe,” said Michael Kaplen, a lawyer who represents brain trauma victims, in an interview with the New York Times. “Simply put, it cannot be made safe. Football is a concussion delivery system.”
But for the league, the Super Bowl is a revenue delivery system. Fox, CBS and NBC each pay roughly $3 billion per season for broadcast rights, which includes a rotating deal to air the championship game. NBC hopes to make about $350 million of that back Sunday with ad sales.
That hissing sound
Against that backdrop — and all of the above — the NFL has donated its internal ad agency and the $4.5 million cost of 30 seconds of commercial airtime to the No More campaign, a corporate-sponsored advocacy group concerned with domestic violence and sexual assault, for a PSA recounting a 911 call reporting a domestic attack. It’s a chilling ad, and if it does indeed raise awareness and get some victims help, then it is also a worthy effort.
But just as teaching six-year-olds to “tackle safely” or bragging that the professionals had only 202 reported concussions this season (as the NFL did on Thursday) seems a bit off, so does a 30-second burst of public conscience about spousal abuse after a season of trying to keep player violence more-or-less private.
During the broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX, during the part they squeeze between the ads, there will no doubt be an almost uncountable number of references to soft balls. But outside of the PR, will there be any talk of head trauma or player-perpetrated abuse? Given the league’s limp response all season, viewers’ expectations probably shouldn’t be too inflated.
But after the game, after the punts, passes and kicks, after the MVP does or doesn’t announce his gratitude to god or his trip to Disneyworld, the 2014 season will be over. And with it, most likely, will go most of the hot air over deflate-gate. What will likely not go away are reports of violence and cases of head trauma. Those storylines have already proven unfavorable for brands like Jaguar, Lincoln, or last year’s big freshman advertiser, Chobani — how long can the NFL expect the makers of children’s candy or women’s hygiene products to continue to pump up their bottom line?