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How the NFL turned the Super Bowl into a phenomenon

The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day have nothing on the Super Bowl. Without being an official holiday, the gonzo game has flags, food, friends and drink aplenty — and can claim the largest national TV audiences ever.

Thanks to a record-breaking regular season for viewership and ubiquitous parties this weekend, the National Football League’s signature event is poised to become the most watched television program in American history as a pair of evenly matched, old-school teams prepare to battle for the championship in Dallas. If Sunday’s matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers sets a new viewing record, it would grab the distinction from last year’s Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints, which drew an audience of 106.5 million people.

The Super Bowl’s rise to the zenith of national pop culture events is no accident, but rather due to a savvy marketing strategy that has been amped up over recent years. Through a combination of better cooperation with its television partners, marketing to women and a not-so-subtle linking of football to patriotism, the NFL has managed to expand its reach while most other television properties have shrunk.

“It has been one of the most profoundly effective media and public relations events that has ever been built in the United States,” said Daniel T. Durbin, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, of the NFL’s marketing prowess.

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The achievement is all the more remarkable for a slew of potential public relations disasters that could have easily derailed its success this season. The league seemed to be bulletproof in the face of a litany of high profile troubles: a new attention to the medical risks posed by player concussions (Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered two this year), the return of star quarterback Michael Vick after serving a prison sentence for dogfighting charges, accusations of sexual harassment against legend Brett Favre, and, of course, the suspension of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after he was accused (but not charged) of sexual assault last year.

Many credit the leadership of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has a no-nonsense reputation that doesn’t kowtow to star athletes. “Goodell really wraps himself in the league,” said David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “I think it’s that he is able to position the NFL as a collection of players as opposed to just individual players, so when any one of them gets into trouble, it’s still about the overall presentation of the league.”

Although Goodell ably protects the league’s image, it’s a Kenyan native educated in the United Kingdom who once hawked tobacco and alcohol products that has helped lift the NFL to new heights. Mark Waller, who joined the NFL in 2006 originally to promote the game abroad and is now the league’s first chief marketing officer, sees football as “America’s last great campfire.”

“Imagine you were above the United States on a Sunday, you’d see these incredible glows of stadiums,” Waller said.

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A key to keeping the league’s fire burning was the NFL’s ability to persuade the networks that carry the games to work together in hyping the league. Highlights are shared now and there is more cross-promotion of the NFL among networks and less squaring off against each other.

“Historically they would compete against each other … now they are selling one story,” Waller said.

Games are no longer scheduled haphazardly, but instead are done with great forethought to guarantee big matchups every week for every network. “It has become a science over the past four years; that was not the case in the past,” said NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol.

With its revenue sharing, salary cap and draft rules that give the worst teams the best picks, the NFL is designed to encourage fans to believe this is the year their team could go to the Super Bowl. It’s paid off too: In recent years, perennial also-rans such as the Saints, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks have advanced to the Super Bowl.

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“We give people a place to hope and dream,” Waller said.

To encourage those dreams, the NFL has also strived to create even more big events. Starting just days before the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2002, the league opened its regular season on a Thursday night with a national game featuring the New York Giants. As part of the festivities, a pre-game concert was held in Times Square featuring Bon Jovi. Now opening night has become an annual event that is rapidly reaching Super Bowl proportions.

“Bring more fans in at the beginning of the season and they’ll stay and multiply,” Waller explained.

For years, the league wanted more of those fans counting down to the Super Bowl to be women, and now they are. The days of Mom leaving the house on Sunday while Dad plopped down in front of the TV with a bag of chips and a six-pack are over. These days, she is as likely to be glued to the TV wearing her own officially licensed NFL jersey. Female viewership has risen dramatically, more than 20% compared with five years ago, according to ratings data from ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC.

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To do that, the NFL and its TV partners borrowed a page from the producers of the Olympics and began emphasizing more than just the X’s and O’s of the game, introducing off-the-field storylines about players, coaches and even certain cities. Last year’s Super Bowl coverage focused as much on the city of New Orleans and its struggles post-Katrina as it did on the Saints making their first appearance in the big game.

“It’s no longer just who wins and loses,” Waller said. “It’s all those other stories as well.”

One of those stories that the NFL sells is America itself. While all professional sports have a long history of tapping into nationalistic fervor, the NFL in particular seems to hit this note hard.

This has usually been accomplished through imagery such as military flyovers during the playoff games and the Super Bowl. But in post-Sept. 11 America, it’s been taken up a notch by the league and the networks. For example, NBC’s Sunday night pregame show is called “Football Night in America” and the theme song features the lyrics “NFL players bleed red, white and blue.”

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“We’re all very much interested in wrapping ourselves up in the patriotic fervor,” Ebersol said. “I don’t think it is misplaced, it is truly an American game.”

It’s a fine line to walk and some wonder if the league doesn’t overdo it now and then.

“In certain times, in times of war … it becomes a little blatant and obvious,” said John Walsh, ESPN’s executive editor.

The NFL’s Waller said the league doesn’t “set out to use patriotism as a brand.”

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“We tap into that community feel that quite honestly has been lost in many respects,” he added. “I do think we are meaningful and unifying…. Nothing unites the country like Super Bowl day.”

joe.flint@latimes.com


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