Super Bowl LII: A Breakdown of the Big Event

Jennie Kroeger

As the nation gears up for Super Bowl LII, we sat down with some of our faculty members and students in the Department of Sport Management for their take on the big event.  

The Super Bowl is the largest single sporting event in American culture and is also quite popular internationally. Why? What makes the Super Bowl so special?

Dr. Jeffrey James: The popularity of the Super Bowl in the U.S. is rooted in the popularity of football, particularly the NFL, and sustained by the spectacle the event has become. Professional football still ranks as the top spectator sport in the United States, and while the strength of the position may be declining, other sports (notably NASCAR and collegiate football) have not yet surpassed the popularity of professional football. The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of professional football, and in one sense draws attention because the best teams are competing. Professional football emerged and literally grew in popularity along with television broadcasting. Former commissioner Pete Rozelle had the vision to develop contracts with network television during that industry's growth period. Those governing Major League Baseball ' America's pastime ' rejected opportunities to develop contracts with television broadcasting, fearing people would not attend games. Rozelle recognized the potential to bring football games to people, rather than always requiring people to attend games in person. The latter has not been abandoned, rather television was used to broaden the appeal of football. For the television industry, football filled programming slots and allowed for innovation (e.g., multiple cameras and replays), which further entertained those watching. Professional football and television grew together in a perfect storm, and football emerged as the most popular sport in the U.S. The popularity of football may be attributed to various elements. The season is the shortest among all professional sports, and while the play-off structure has grown over the years, it is still only a single-elimination system with a (relatively) small number of teams. The stakes are higher for each game played compared to other sports, adding to the drama and excitement of games. As the crowning game for the professional football season, the Super Bowl has become a media spectacle. Today, there is extended coverage of the event, including pre- and post-game shows. A simple yet effective tactic is promotion; the Super Bowl has been and continues to be promoted as the event in sports. The large number of viewers attracts advertisers; in the U.S., nine of the 10 top-rated television shows of all time based on total viewers are Super Bowl broadcasts. A part of the spectacle today is the Super Bowl commercials. Millions would tune in to see the creative, unique, and sometimes odd, commercials. The advertisers generally seek to reach (1) the average NFL consumer based on a fit with demographic characteristics, and/or (2) a large audience, using the broadcast as a platform for mass appeal (reaching a lot of people, not any particular group of people). While the popularity remains and the spectacle is heavily promoted, the Super Bowl will continue as the top U.S. sporting event. It will be interesting to find out in coming years if the popularity declines as a result of the problems associated with the National Football League. In the digital age today, the playing field for the attention of consumers is also being leveled as access to literally any event can be made available via the Internet for a far more affordable cost that network broadcasts. The Super Bowl is still the king, but I am not sure for how long.  

What makes Super Bowl 52, specifically, so important?

Dr. James Du: Mega sport events, such as Super Bowl LII, are more than just a game. The event of such magnitude affords the city of Minneapolis unprecedented opportunities to elicit social, economic, and environmental benefits. Notably, the event has the capacity to transform a slack month of February into a Super Bowl windfall for the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan statistical area by attracting more viewership, generating more revenue, and leading to more significant growth in tourism and convention business than any other single sport event. It is estimated that the Super Bowl LII Host Committee has spent more than $4.89 million to attract and host the game to boost the bottom line of the local economy (Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee, 2017). According to Rockport Analytics (2016), the projected economic impact of hosting the Super Bowl LII on the Twin Cities is approximately $407 million. This direct economic effect focuses on the total per diem expenditures derived from the number of visitor days by non-local travelers. This figure can be far more valuable when considering the indirect and induced economic impact of the event, which measures the effects resulting from inter-industry transactions, employment creation, and changes in household incomes attributable to direct expenditures.

What goes into organizing an event of this magnitude?

Dr. James Du: It takes a village to flawlessly design, manage, execute, and deliver one of the most high-profile mega sport events on the planet to fulfill the aforementioned economic, social and political agendas. The Super Bowl LII represents such a preeminent platform through which the host committee partners with various business and community stakeholders to develop an effective and strategic operational planning, which is fundamental to successful event management. To date, the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee consists of a team of 15 members and 85 advisory board experts with a diversity of professional backgrounds and experiences. One of the key goals of the committee is to incubate and prioritize development opportunities for Minnesota-based, qualified, and underutilized business entities to connect with the NFL and its corporate partners. In total, over 100 projects and 28 subcommittees have been assembled thus far. Each unit is responsible for accomplishing a domain-specific goal, which includes but is not limited to, sales and finance, marketing and promotions, fundraising and sponsorship, community relations and sustainability, facility risk management, transportation and parking, public safety, VIP, hotels and venues, and tourism and out-state marketing. For instance, the public safety committee has already allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars for security and anti-terrorism activities and voted to build a police command center next to the U.S. Bank Stadium to dispatch resources needed to manage an event of this magnitude and complexity.

In an era of diminishing viewer ratings across media, the Super Bowl continuously sets new viewing records. Will this continue? Why/why not? What tone will the ads take this year?  

Dr. Michael Giardina: We need to consider the Super Bowl as not just another sporting event, or even championship game, but rather as a national spectacle at the confluence of sport, entertainment, and popular culture. Who's performing the halftime show? (Justin Timberlake) Which brands will make a splash with major advertisements? Will there be any player protests (and will Trump tweet about it if there are)? These kinds of questions, plus the two weeks of media coverage leading up to the game, all combine to build up hype, generate interest among non-sports fans, and serve as a communal event to be consumed ' a tailgating party in your own living room with friends and coworkers alike. And although viewer ratings are declining across television media due in part to cord cutters, streaming subscription services such as Netflix, the ever-growing segmentation of the broadcast market (i.e., hundreds of cable and satellite channels all competing for finite potential viewers), and an increasing number of people who rely primarily on mobile devices for their media consumption, we have to remember that live , . events ' especially live sporting events ' still reign supreme. In fact, 37 of the 50 most-watched television broadcasts of 2017 were NFL games, and all 50 were live broadcasts of some kind (e.g., sporting event, awards show, political event). So, any talk of diminishing ratings needs to be placed in its proper context. Even if ratings for the 2018 Super Bowl dropped by 5% from last year's 111.3 million viewers, it would still be the 10th most-watched television broadcast in the history of the United States (and about 70 million more viewers than the 2018 college football national championship game between Georgia and Alabama). More to the point, the Super Bowl is the only broadcasted event in the United States than can guarantee a live television audience of more than 100 million viewers. Since 2010, the eight most-watched television broadcasts in the United States are the eight Super Bowls that have been played in that time period. Because of this, global brands are now paying upwards of $5 million for a prime 30-second advertising slot during the first quarter of the upcoming game. In fact, the advertisements themselves are part of the spectacle, with more and more pressure on companies to use their ad buys to launch a new product, reinforce or change the tone of the brand, or capture headlines because of who appeared in the ad. Here we might think of iconic ads such as Coca-Cola's "Hey Kid, Catch!" ad in 1980 that featured "Mean" Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Apple's famous "1984" (in 1984) ad that introduced the Macintosh computer, or the Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan ad in 1993 for McDonald's. Weeks before the 2018 Super Bowl, AdAge had already published in-depth information on a number of the ads, with other non-sport publication such as Variety and Forbes covering the advertising side of things as well. In the past, numerous newspapers and websites have even graded the ads the next day, with some brands taking harsh criticism for a poorly executed ad. Looking beyond who wins or loses, the advertising industry ' and by extension, many of the top brands in the U.S. ' have a lot riding on the game. Last year, coming out of a hotly contested political season and presidential election, a number of brands opted to make (or at least imply) political statements, such as 84 Lumber, which featured a border wall between the United States and Mexico, deemed by FOX to be too political for broadcast. This year, I would expect to see a continuation of ads that comment on social issues. For example, Stella Artois is partnering with on a campaign to promote clean drinking water in developing countries. Brands are coming around to finally acknowledging that sports are in fact political, that sport fans have political opinions, and so forth. However, I do believe that humorous and light-hearted ads will also be plentiful given the current chaotic political climate nationally, and perhaps especially so considering the backlash the NFL has received over the past year on a number of fronts.  

What makes Super Bowl advertising effective or ineffective?

Dr. Jeffrey James: As the spectacle of the Super Bowl has grown, an element that has contributed to such growth is the commercials aired during the broadcast of the game. I think the effectiveness (or not) of the commercial depends in large part on the objective of the advertiser. Thinking about the audience viewing the game, there are generally two reasons why a company may be interested in advertising around or during the Super Bowl. First, considering the demographic characteristics of an average viewer of professional football, a company may find that their product (whether that is a good or service), is one that does or could appeal to that type of viewer. For example, the average NFL fan is most likely male, Caucasian, 45 years of age or older, making more than $60,000 per year. A product appealing to such a consumer would find the Super Bowl a very good platform to connect with current and prospective consumers. If you think about the average NFL fan, it should not surprise you that products believed to appeal to that target group are prominent advertisers during a Super Bowl broadcast (e.g., automobiles, beer, financial services), and it should come as no surprise that when trying to reach a largely male audience, advertisers may opt for the clich d approach: sex sells. As evidence of the latter, Pepsi is airing a new spot with Cindy Crawford, connecting with their very popular 1992 ad that featured her. A second reason Super Bowl advertising may be effective is the opportunity to reach a large audience. The Super Bowl historically is the highest rated television program in the U.S. Knowing there will be large numbers of people watching the broadcast of the game, advertisers have an opportunity to reach with one spot potentially the largest audience possible (compared to other advertising options). That is a primary reason the NFL commands such high fees for advertising spots. Advertisers opting for a mass appeal approach have sought to maximize the impact of their spots by trying to present memorable, perhaps even controversial ads, that people will remember and talk about. The Super Bowl ads are also effective because most have taken on the mini-film approach that was first utilized in a Super Bowl ad by Apple in 1984. The Super Bowl ads now carry an expectation of having a plot-driven approach, more of a story than just a 15- or 30-second promo. The advertising style is utilized now throughout the year, but has become the expectation for effective Super Bowl ads. This is the one time in televised programming where folks want to tune in and pay attention to the ads.  

Super Bowls, like other major sporting events, have had a way of attracting protests. How will protests such as NFL, anthem and political protest impact the Super Bowl?

Mr. Ryan Kota, 4th year doctoral student: Major sporting events often elicit positive and negative feelings from consumers and activists alike. During the 2017 NFL season, fans and the media debated about major current issues, including player safety, the national anthem, and politics. The 2018 version of the big game looks to be no different. Players in the NFL are getting hurt every week; violent collisions can ultimately lead to a player being carted off the field with a gruesome physical injury, or walking off the field with a concussion. According to the Washington Post, because of the increasing number of injuries along with growing evidence on the long-term negative impacts of concussions, some fans have stopped watching the NFL. Parents have directed their children to participate in other sports and have lost interest in watching the new-age Gladiatorial Games. The 2017 NFL regular season saw a significant drop in ratings, and this lower viewership is expected to follow the NFL into the postseason and Super Bowl. Similarly, it has been speculated that fans of the NFL are turning away after reading about, or witnessing, players kneeling during the national anthem. Players are taking a knee during the national anthem to protest inequality and social injustice, pioneered by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Segments of the population ' specifically older white viewers, according to the New York Post ' who view these protests as disrespecting the U.S. flag, have stopped watching the NFL as a result. These thoughts of disrespect are bred from and strengthened by the sentiments provided by President Donald Trump, other activists, and several media outlets. Backlash against the national anthem protests, in collaboration with the believed mistreatment of players, has turned away younger black viewers from the NFL. According to the New York Post, younger black viewers who turned away from the NFL in 2017 were more likely to engage with the NBA instead. At this point, you may be asking how the NFL can succeed in this environment. How can the league overcome these obstacles and make a substantial profit from Super Bowl LII? It truly is hard to envision a scenario where the Super Bowl isn't four quarters of football, split in half by an extravagant half-time show with memorable commercials during TV timeouts. This format will by-and-large remain the same, and fans will cheer and laugh right along with millions of other viewers; however, noticeable differences should be expected. Economists and media outlets have predicted that ratings will be down from previous years. Further, NBC has stated that they will air all national anthem protesters before Super Bowl LII. The current landscape of information sharing (i.e., social media) provides instantaneous access to opinions and thoughts of millions of individuals, so this action by NBC will likely elicit responses. Should these public outcries be construed as negative and/or reach certain market segments, they could impact the overall Super Bowl LII experience for some, and could even have a long-term impact on NFL sponsorships, advertisements, and sales.  

Is there anything else you would like to add in relation to this year's super bowl?

Dr. James Du: Despite the predominant focus on economic capacity, mega sport events can also serve as a catalyst to address pressing and controversial social issues facing the American society and host community. In light of the taking a knee protest, it would be imperative to assess the extent to which the Super Bowl LII can help alleviate the criticism and disharmony caused by the controversy through leveraging social values of the event, fostering social interactions, and promoting a sense of communities. Fred Gaudelli, the Super Bowl LII executive producer, stated that if the kneel controversy recurs during the national anthem at Super Bowl LII, NBC will still spotlight the demonstration on air, despite numerous advertisers threatened to pull the ads over if the broadcaster continues covering the political side of the issue. In the meantime, all commission members of a regional airport in Brainerd, Minnesota also urge the NFL to enforce its rules requiring players to stand during the national anthem at the game. The group could consider diverting incoming flights for the Super Bowl LII if the protest continues during the national anthem.