NFL has made Super Bowl Sunday into a holiday, is a three-day weekend the next step?
Forget the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving or New Year's Day. Super Bowl Sunday has replaced them all as America’s No. 1 holiday. It has become so big that the National Football League is considering giving the game its own three-day weekend.
That’s no joke. One scenario making the rounds at the league is that if the NFL gets the green light from the players to expand its regular season from 16 to 18 games, President’s Day weekend will probably become the permanent home of the Super Bowl.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” predicted NBC Universal Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, whose network pays $660 million a year to carry the NFL’s Sunday night football package. “ I think that’s a pretty attractive idea,” echoed Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, which shells out $650 million annually for its package of games.
Of course, the players are against expanding the schedule but if the owners are united on this then it seems likely.
At a time when most television properties are struggling in the face of massive audience fragmentation, the NFL is seeing incredible growth. Ratings were up on all five broadcast and cable networks that carry games, and this season’s Super Bowl match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers in Dallas this Sunday is expected to top the viewership record set by last year’s Colts – Saints battle, which drew 106.5 million people and became the most-watched TV event in the United States ever, breaking the almost 30-year-old record held by the series finale of “M*A*S*H.”
It’d be easy to chalk this up solely to the love of the game, but over the last few years the popularity for the NFL in general and the Super Bowl in particular have entered another stratosphere that seemingly defies logic. The last five games have all topped more than 90 million viewers. Until 2005, only five of the previous 39 Super Bowls had surpassed that mark.
So how has the NFL turned the Super Bowl into a de facto national holiday?
Savvy marketing for starters. Over the last decade, the NFL and its TV partners have undertaken several initiatives – some noisy and others subtle – designed not only to boost the league’s fan base, but its stature in the country as well. These moves have included aggressively promoting the NFL to women, creating more big events beyond the Super Bowl and not being shy about making the watching of a football game seem like a patriotic act.
“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 and Journalism, of the NFL’s marketing prowess.
The man in charge of making sure football remains entrenched both with viewers and in America’s conscience is a Kenyan native schooled in the United Kingdom who used to hawk tobacco and alcohol. Mark Waller, who joined the NFL in 2006 to help promote the game abroad before rising to become the league’s first chief marketing officer, calls football “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.
Borrowing a page from the producers of the Olympics, the NFL and its TV partners have also become aggressive about discussing more than just X’s and O’s and talking about life and challenges off the field for the players and coaches and in some cases, even the 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-ever appearance in the big game.
The idea of hyping itself used to be foreign to the NFL and looked down upon as tacky and pushy.
“They’ve come a long way,” says Sara Levinson, who as president of NFL Properties from 1994 to 2000, oversaw marketing for the league. She recalled that while some were eager to see the NFL become more aggressive promoters, many of the league's old guard were reluctant to think of the league as a “brand,” believing nothing promoted the NFL “better than watching a game.”
It helps to have team owners that recognize that the league is more powerful than any individual team.
“They have an appreciation for the need to grow, strengthen and elevate the NFL brand as much as their own individual teams,” said Mark Shapiro, the chief executive of Dick Clark Productions and a former executive vice president of ESPN who still has close ties to the NFL. “I really think that’s what separates it from other leagues.”
For more on how the NFL has turned the Super Bowl into America's de facto national holiday, please see our story in Friday's Los Angeles Times.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Dallas gets ready for the big day. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US Presswire.