SBJ/February 18-24, 2013/Opinion

Planning a Super Bowl of firsts; A-B’s activation acumen

If you were in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, much of the conversation focused on New York City hosting the game next February and all the logistical challenges of a cold-weather Super Bowl. Our reports coming out of that week were indicative of just how different this Super Bowl experience will be.

While in New Orleans, I spent some time with Al Kelly, who has the task of leading the NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Committee and preparing for virtually every contingency that could come up during next year’s event. As many of you know, Kelly is the longtime American Express executive who worked at AmEx for 23 years before leaving in 2010. As the oldest of seven kids in a tight Catholic family, Kelly surely knows the qualities of forgiveness, patience, perseverance, working hard and working together. He is going to need these qualities, and more, over the next year.

Kelly is a realist: He is fully aware of the tremendous challenge ahead of him. I liked his friendly, kind manner that begat an organized and analytical style. He was blunt about the issues, from transportation to weather. He wants to make this the first mass-transit Super Bowl, which will be difficult for so many of us who appreciate a central, urban location for the big game. He was bullish on the volunteer base and meeting his budget. He talked optimistically of the novel Super Bowl Boulevard along Broadway between 34th to 44th streets that will feature fan events and attractions. But Kelly’s optimism is countered by many people’s pessimism.

In most of the discussions I had with sources, fewer than 20 percent sounded excited about the prospects of a cold-weather Super Bowl. All agreed it will be the most amplified event in the game’s history — from fan interest, to ticket prices, to sponsor activation, to media attention, and not just from U.S. media, but by the large number of media around the world that is based in New York City, providing far greater coverage. But, as can be expected, there are a litany of concerns.

First, many partners and sponsors were alarmed when told that there were no plans for an NFL Experience. It was the first many of them had heard of it. The lack of an Experience shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a centerpiece of the NFL’s success in drawing hundreds of thousands of fans to engage with their game leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. Sponsors love it for its personal touch points, and it’s a merchandise gold mine. Kelly told us that they searched from “Greenwich to Princeton” for a location, and I don’t doubt that. It’s also well-known that the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was not available due to industry conventions/shows that couldn’t be moved. But many sources I talked to are surprised that a bid for NY/NJ wasn’t completed with a location already nailed down. In addition, sponsors showed little excitement for the new plan of the Super Bowl Boulevard, expressing concern over the outdoor setting and square footage. I also heard multiple worries about ambush marketing. This will be a fluid, moving story. There are still a number of major events, Taste of the NFL, for example, that are looking for a suitable space to hold their events.

Kelly talked about “so many … firsts about this Super Bowl” and doing “something different.” That will be a given; this will be unlike any Super Bowl week we’ve experienced. Look no further than Kelly issuing a statement last week, a full year out, about preparing for all contingencies that could face the Super Bowl as the Northeast was dealing with a massive storm. And the only pressure organizers face is that I believe the ability of this host committee to stage a successful event will dictate the NFL’s willingness to do this in other cold-weather cities.

Patience, perseverance, forgiveness and working hard while working together. Oh, and luck. Al Kelly is going to want to draw on all those qualities over the next year.

> AN ACTIVATION THAT WORKS: Many are critical of the big auto, beer and beverage brands for having the deep pockets to spend heavily on media around their sports sponsorships while accusing them of displaying little innovation with their on-the-ground activation. I get that. Anheuser-Busch is an example of a company that spends big on sports advertising. But if you’ve had a chance to visit its Bud Light Hotel, you’d see a company extending a sponsorship in front of thousands of consumers through a unique experience. A-B once again transformed a hotel into Bud Light’s brand headquarters, this time taking a 200-room downtown New Orleans hotel, a Wyndham property, and making it one of the most sought-after tickets in town during Super Bowl week.

I toured the venue early during Super Bowl week while work was being quickly completed before a Thursday night grand opening. I’ve never experienced anything similar in terms of how a brand completely takes over a venue for days, down to the most minute details — branded hotel swipe keys, mouthwash, toiletries, elevator siding, rugs and floor mats — all with subtle branding of Bud Light.

Outside the branding, though, a couple of things stood out: the ability of the brand to integrate its sports and music platforms with concerts throughout the week; the ability to create a hip and cool consumer experience; and the opportunity for A-B to have an “oasis” for its top clients, bottlers and customers for one of the biggest events on the calendar.

I haven’t come across many consumer packaged goods brands that have sports activations like this, and it was a nice finale to A-B’s NFL programming throughout the season — right down to Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” the night before the Super Bowl, coming full circle on Bud Light’s seasonlong activation message.

> KEEPING CALM: Family and friends were eager to get my personal reaction to the power outage that hit the Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII. Full disclosure: My mind was racing through multiple disaster scenarios. But as I lament my sense of fatalism, the one thing I continually point to was how calm and collected the crowd of 80,000 remained during the uncertainty. That was easily my biggest takeaway and impression: how the audience members admirably conducted themselves.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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