Is the Super Bowl really so Super?

By Jane Weaver


‘It’s a national holiday. It reaches everyone, women, children, young people and old people’

The Super Bowl is the biggest sports media spectacle of the year. The television networks pay billions for the rights to air the football extravaganza. Advertisers pay millions to hawk their brands to what is typically the largest TV audience of the year. Is it really worth what everybody pays for it?

THE COSTS FOR advertising in the game have skyrocketed even as the size of the TV viewing audience fluctuates from year to year. For this year’s game Super Bowl XXXV CBS has set a record asking price of $2.3 million for a 30-second commercial. Late Friday, a CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said that the network had signed on three new advertisers to its roster of Super Bowl marketers and was ‘purposefully’ holding back a few more commercial slots for late arrivals.To put the advertising costs of this once-a-year event in context: a 30-second spot during the 2nd season opener of ‘Survivor, airing on CBS immediately after the Super Bowl, is reportedly going for $1 million; the ‘Survivor’ season finale in August cost up to $600,000 and was watched by 35 million viewers. ABC, a unit of Walt Disney, charged $1.3 million for a 30-second ad during the 2000 Academy Awards, which drew more than 50 million viewers.

In 1967, two networks — NBC and CBS — broadcast the AFL-NFL World Championship Game from Los Angeles. About 46 million viewers tuned in to the two networks for Super Bowl I, according to Nielsen Media Research . Advertisers paid $42,000 for a 30-second spot, and football fans paid between $6 and $12 for tickets. Green Bay, behind the passing of Bart Starr and receiving of Max McGee, beat Kansas City 35-10 The Packers collected $15,000 per man and the Chiefs $7,500 — the then-largest single-game shares in the history of team sports. Green Bay, under legendary coach Vince Lombardi, would go on to repeat its Super Bowl victory the next year, against the Oakland Raiders in Miami’s Orange Bowl.

In 1971, 59 million people watched Super Bowl V on NBC. The price for a 30-second television commercial leaped to $72,000, but you could buy a ticket to the game for just $15. Over 79,000 people attended the game in Miami’s Orange Bowl. Baltimore Colts’ rookie kicker Jim O’Brien kicked a field goal in the final five seconds to give his team a 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys. It was the first Super Bowl to be played on artificial turf.

Advertising prices swelled to $110,000 for 30-second spots in Super Bowl X in 1976. NBC pulled in a 44.4 rating, and tickets sold for $20. The Pittsburgh Steelers won their second straight Super Bowl with the help of receiver Lynn Swann, who earned MVP honors. Swann set a then-Super Bowl record by gaining 161 yards on his four receptions before 80,187 fans in Miami’s Orange Bowl. Steelers 21, Dallas 17.

The Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XV, beating the Philadelphia Eagles 27 to 10 behind quarterback Jim Plunkett’s three touchdown passes. It was the first time a wild-card team had won a Super Bowl. In 1981, fans forked over $40 for admission to the big game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. A 30-second television commercial on NBC cost $275,000, and 94 million viewers watched worldwide.

In 1986, a 30-second ad cost over a half-million dollars. NBC picked up a 48.3 rating for Super Bowl XX with 127 million people tuning in. Fans paid $75 to watch Chicago crush New England 46 to 10 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Each of the Bears’ players received $36,000 for playing in the game while each of the losing Patriot players received $18,000 — more than the winning players received in Super Bowl I. It was the Bears first NFL title since 1963.

Super Bowl XXV in 1991 was a heart-breaker for Buffalo’s Scott Norwood. The kicker missed a 47-yard field goal in the game’s final seconds, and the New York Giants squeaked by with a 20-19 win. The game attracted 109 million viewers, and $800,000 for every 30-second advertisement that was broadcast. With America having entered into a confrontation with Iraq just 11 days earlier, the NFL — and host city Tampa — cancelled many of the festivities in the week leading up to the big game.

Businesses paid over $1 million for every 30-second advertisement during Super Bowl XXX. NBC scored a rating of 46 with 138 million viewers watching some part of the game. Spectators paid between $200 and $350 for seats at Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium; some 76,347 showed up. The Dallas Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in four years thanks to Larry Brown’s two interceptions, which made him the game’s Most Valuable Player. Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 17.

Ads in this year’s Super Bowl XXXV will cost $2.3 million for 30-seconds. That’s about the same as a year ago. Tickets are selling for about $325 a piece. CBS will air the game live from Tampa, Florida. But whereas in Super Bowl XXXIV, 17 companies bought commercial time, this year’s game is expected to draw far fewer — only three are returning. With three weeks to go before the game, the network says ad time is not yet sold out and media watchers say the shakeout may be contributing to the slower sales. The Super Bowl bonus for winning players last year was $58,000, while the losers received $33,000.

But while last year’s Super Bowl on ABC was up 7 percent in ratings over the 1999 game, according to Nielsen Media Research, Super Bowl ratings during the past five years have failed to match those hit in 1995. In that year, 138 million viewers watched a 46 Nielsen rating as the Dallas Cowboys’s defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 37-17. (A ratings point equals just over 1 million homes.)

Meanwhile, each year breaks a new record on the price of a commercial during the over three-hour game. In 1999, Fox charged a then unheard of $1.6 million for a 30-second commercial; last year ABC jacked up the price 30 percent to $2.2 million and reportedly got as much as $3 million for some spots as capital-rich, money-foolish dot-coms rushed in.

CBS isn’t making ratings projections on the Jan. 28 championship game in Tampa, although McClintock says the football event ‘should be in line with the past few Super Bowls.’

So why would anyone pay more money for about the same number of viewers?

The reality is, probably not very many of the 20-something advertisers in the Super Bowl actually paid the full asking price, media watchers say. With a total budget goal of $150 million, CBS arranged packages of ad time, including pre- and post-game commercials, to its blue-chip Super Bowl advertisers.

‘It’s hard to tell what a Super Bowl commercial really costs,’ says Joe Mandese, editor of The Myers Report, a media and marketing newsletter. ‘The networks keep the rate card up with sophisticated packaging and the johnny-come-latelys are the only ones who pay full freight.’

One reason the networks pump up the ad rates in the Super Bowl is tied to escalating rights fees for major professional sports, including the NFL, sports marketing executives say.

Big brands return to the big Bowl game

The major broadcast networks paid $17.6 billion in 1998 for the right to air NFL Sports over eight years. CBS alone paid $4 billion to acquire AFC games, including the rights to the 35th Super Bowl.

(The Super Bowl rotates between the broadcast networks next year’s event will air on Fox Sports.)

It’s arguable that the beauty of the Super Bowl is that it’s not really about football anymore.

But even with exorbitant sports rights fees and pricey commercial time, media experts say the value of events like the Super Bowl go beyond simple economics for the networks and advertisers.

‘It is a day you know you’re going to have the lion’s share of eyeballs on your network,’ says Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing for OMD USA, a global media firm that buys for BBDO and TBWA/Chiat/Day. ‘The value that a network gains from the Super Bowl is to the level that they put into it and how they utilize that platform to promote their schedule of programming.’

This year CBS has programmed an unprecendented number of pre-game specials, including the MTV produced ‘CBS Presents: MTV’s Super Bowl Uncensored’ and the hugely popular live music show ‘Total Request Live,’ which will air for the first time on CBS on Super Sunday.

And in the tried-and-true tradition of launching new shows immediately after the game with the highly anticipated 2nd season premiere of ‘Survivor.’ (Historical footnote: NBC introduced 80s phenomenon Mr. T to the world with the premiere of ‘The A-Team’ immediately following Super Bowl XVII in 1983.)

It’s arguable, in fact, that the beauty of the Super Bowl is that it’s not really about football anymore.

‘It’s a national holiday,’ says McGovern. ‘It reaches everyone, women, children, young people and old people.’

From an advertiser’s perspective, even if ratings are slightly off because of a dull game, the audience will probably stick around for the commercials.

‘We look at it as part of our strategy of having a few high profile media events,’ says Larry Flanagan, chief marketing officer for Mastercard, which is debuting a new commercial in the first half of the game. ‘It reaches a very broad audience and has a very high attention level for the commercials.’