- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

Is the Super Bowl still super?
In the most basic sense, without question. The NFL's annual championship game this February in New Orleans again will attract the largest single American TV audience of the year, draw advertisers paying more than $4 million per minute for air time during the event and be witnessed by viewers in more than 180 countries. To put it another way U2, arguably the world's most popular rock band and generators of more than $140 million on its most recent tour falls here to the undercard as the Super Bowl's halftime entertainment.
But two leading economic indicators for the Super Bowl ad sales for the game and ticket prices in the secondary markets are both trailing the pace of recent years, registering some dents in the event's once-invincible armor.
Fox, which will air two hours less of pre-game programming for Super Bowl XXXVI than it did three years ago, is reaping an average of $2.3 million per 30-second spot, the same as last year. Super Bowl ad rates have not stayed flat in consecutive years since 1992 and 1993 and, most telling, 20 percent of available slots for the game remain available.
Meanwhile, ticket brokers nationwide are fetching between $1,300 and $3,000 for most seats at the Louisiana Superdome, a major bump from the $400 face value but far less than the $2,000 to $5,000 range for the last several Super Bowls.
So what's to blame? There's no single prevailing factor, but the ongoing economic recession, slashed advertising budgets for most major U.S. corporations, concerns over the safety of air travel, and a shift of winter sports spending, both among fans and businesses, to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City each plays a role.
"There are a lot of things at play to explain the slowdown, the economy certainly playing a significant role," said Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of Advanswers, a New York media services agency. "But in my mind, the Olympics really changes things. That's just a whole lot of high-end [advertising] inventory to sell in one quarter, particularly one that's historically so weak."
From a sales and marketing standpoint, the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics have butted heads every four years for the entire 36-year history of the football game. This year, however, is rather different because the combination of lofty TV ad prices for top-tier sporting events and the rapidly shrinking number of corporations flush with marketing cash has resulted in a very small pool of potential advertisers.
Visa is a lock to be involved in both events. The same goes for Anheuser-Busch and General Motors. After that, the list of certain-to-be-there sponsors gets murky. Electronic Data Systems Corp., a prominent Super Bowl advertiser the last two years, is shifting its dollars to the Olympics, unable and unwilling to support both. Volkswagen has made the same decision.
"It's just a different time now than just a few years ago," said Lou D'Ermilio, Fox Sports vice president. "We started [Super Bowl] programming at 11 a.m. for the '99 game. The attitude then was that if we could sell the time, we could program it, and we were able to sell it. That's not reality now. Advertisers are now much, much slower to commit to spending. So we decided it would be better to tighten up the inventory for the Super Bowl instead of dilute it."
On the ticket side, other factors are at play. New Orleans, despite its status as a nine-time Super Bowl host, is a harder city to reach and often less popular in January than sunnier multiple Super Bowl hosts such as Miami, Pasadena and San Diego. And although plenty of executives still need and will use the Super Bowl to woo corporate clients, the Super Bowl has fallen off, at least temporarily, as a vacation destination for middle-class Americans.
"I've been really fortunate compared to some other [brokers] I've been doing better with this year's game than I have in a long time," said Danny Matta, president of Great Seats, a College Park ticket brokerage. "The buy is a little different now, though. It's a lot more companies buying large blocks of seats instead of individuals buying two seats at a time. It's hard to explain, because I expected to be down across the board."
The NFL, for its part, has worked hard since September to ensure this season's Super Bowl as the safest ever. The league also is steadily lining up top-drawer talent for the event, as witnessed by the recent booking of U2, and working to incorporate the war on terrorism, similar to its salute to the military during the Gulf War.
Should the game then be a competitive clash between two popular teams, the collective result is that the Super Bowl could become be one of the most watched and meaningful in recent years.
"We're not scaling back. We're not canceling events," said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "We're redefining to capture the spirit of America, the spirit of the host city, New Orleans, and the spirit of Louisiana. It will be a great, great Super Bowl. Probably the best ever."


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