SBJ/Feb. 10-16, 2014/Opinion

The hits and misses of Super Bowl XLVIII

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Last year after Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, I wrote that a majority of the sources I spoke with were less than excited about the prospects of a Super Bowl in New York. After I listed some of their concerns — mostly event, marketing and transportation related — a number of people in league circles felt it didn’t represent an accurate sense of partners’ feelings about New York/New Jersey hosting the game. So since then, I kept a close eye on the preparation and execution around Super Bowl XLVIII. Now that it’s a wrap, the league and the host committee are likely pleased with how it turned out. Me? I’m torn. I had high grades going into Super Sunday, but the unfortunate game-day transportation failure significantly dragged down my final assessment.

Let’s start with the positives. New York City was engaged in the areas it had to be: Times Square and the Super Bowl Boulevard. I couldn’t get through the Boulevard from Friday through Saturday — it was that jammed with visitors. If the goal was to amplify the event and take over one of the most popular strips in the world, the league was successful. Debate all you want about the set-up or actual activations, but the overall tenor was positive. I saw massive lines of people waiting to get into sponsor pavilions and didn’t see widespread ambush marketing along the Boulevard, which was a concern of official sponsors last year.

The day before the game, I walked miles around the city, and NFL fans filled the streets. To me, the event wasn’t an afterthought or swallowed up by New York City — and, frankly, I never understood this argument. The party scene was vibrant and ticket demand for events was as high as I can remember. Getting around the city was easy enough. A nitpick was that some of the event spaces were not as big as in other cities. But that’s New York, and it all worked out.

The common refrain from local sports executives was that it didn’t feel like a Super Bowl week. Where traditionally many would be at meeting after event after party, many told me they felt stuck in the office like any other normal work week and expressed frustration over their schedule.

But the biggest, and most unexpected, mistake was in the transportation plan. For a year, officials stressed this would be the first “mass transit” Super Bowl, and they made it their top focus and priority, consistently communicating to consumers the proper transportation channels. But after the terrible delays on game day, officials admitted they miscalculated the number of travelers who would end up taking the train over bus and automobile. I had concerns about 10 days out, when I checked bus availability, and most were already sold out. I figured game day was going to be a challenge. Officials estimated roughly 40 percent of fans took the train, and they didn’t anticipate the extra 20,000 fans taking it on game day. But why not? They sorted through every possible scenario over 12 months, and considering all the planning, public notice and information flow about how to get to and from the game, this miscalculation surprised me, to say the very least. Giants co-owner John Mara was on point, as usual, earlier in the week when he said the fan experience at the game would be the key indicator of success, and through that lens, too many fans had an utterly miserable experience coming and going. That’s a shame, they deserve better, and along with the winter blast that hit on Monday morning, it ended the week on a negative downer on what was otherwise a successful foray.

The Super Bowl rotation is set for the next three years. After that, it’s a jump ball. Talking with executives, common themes emerged: They really miss Miami and San Diego; love New Orleans; expect Minnesota to get an opportunity with a new venue; probably Indianapolis again; and most would love to see the game get to Los Angeles. All Super Bowl cities have one issue or another; the tempered success of NY/NJ likely made owners more amenable to new sites. To me, NY/NJ looked really good early on for a quick return visit; they rode lady luck all week until a failure to execute on Sunday.

> STATE OF THE NFL: At a group dinner during Super Bowl week, a number of us went around the table predicting what type of questions Roger Goodell would face during his annual state of the league address. There were the obvious — future Super Bowl rotation, the open Los Angeles market, concussion lawsuit, player safety and challenging playoff ticket sales. It went according to script, there weren’t any surprises and that reflects the state of the league right now. With labor peace locked in, media deals mostly done and the concussion issue nudged to the back burner for now, the league’s in a safe place. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting left when the commissioner’s major questions are on playoff expansion, a code of conduct, on-field replay, a team’s nickname and assorted other manageable issues.
 
The in-venue experience needs innovation, and when it comes to growth, I was interested in the number of questions, as many as four, about NFL expansion globally. That’s an issue I’ll continue to play close attention to. I do think the London games will get a jolt this year when Fox televises its Lions-Falcons game Oct. 26, with the major difference being it will be in its own 9:30 a.m. ET window in the U.S. — live at 1:30 p.m. in the U.K. That Sunday will start with a rare, early morning NFL time slot in the U.S. and will elevate attention around the game.

Jets House was home base for fans, partners in NYC.
Photo by: JOSE REY / NEW YORK JETS
> INSIDE JETS HOUSE: I saw some cool sponsor and event activations during the week, but one that caught my eye specifically for its novelty and effectiveness was Jets House — and that’s hard to admit for a Patriots fan. Jets House was a partnership between the team and Lonny Sweet’s The Connect Group and was located at Lugo Caffe, conveniently residing across from Madison Square Garden. Why did I like it? It was a great way for a team to grab mind share and appeal to its “community” all week — an accessible, vibrant venue that was a home base for Jets fans, partners and guests to gather, similar to NFL House. The Jets had planned this concept for more than a year and sold it first to their season-ticket and corporate base. From Wednesday to Sunday, there were day and evening sessions that featured high-end food and drink, player appearances, cooking demonstrations, historical videos, and memorabilia. It represented healthy incremental business for the team — in addition to ticket sales, it secured eight corporate partners. The evening I was there was bustling, with great food and energy. “We overwhelmingly had Jets fans and that was what we wanted,” said Jeff Fernandez, Jets vice president for business development and ventures. “It was family-oriented during the day, and then we had a strong corporate client base at night.” I heard a number of other team executives checked out this new activation to see how they could copy this concept for their own market.

> FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This feeds into another space I’m watching: the continued nexus between sports and food. I’m seeing more sophistication with event marketing outside the traditional food companies. It’s been done successfully for years at the excellent Taste of the NFL event, and I see a trend of building on some of the popular food and wine festivals all over the country. Consumers know and understand food concepts better than ever — thanks, Food Network. People’s food experiences and expectations have changed, and they want higher-quality, more diverse food offerings in unique settings.

I met up with Sweet, who is out front on some new concepts with The Connect Group. He put on the 50 Yard Lounge, which was adjacent to Jets House. Sweet brought in 83 New York City chefs and restaurants and created different environments all week across genres and cuisines. “I wanted to do something different,” he said. “Tied around better food, with a comfortable feel connected to sports and music.” The key is the food experience. “Not everyone’s a die-hard sports fan, but everyone loves food,” he said. “There is a passion to both food and sports, and this emotional tie to food is now a big selling point.”

The concept is still a work in progress, but the ability to bring in celebrity and local chefs and farm-to-table concepts, and tie them into sports events and properties, is a valuable sales proposition appealing to a more diverse base, including women and families.

Sweet acknowledged this is a gradual process. “It’s not easy,” he conceded. “These were long days. We opened at 10 a.m. and went to 2 a.m., so maybe we were open a bit too long. It’s hard work. You also really need the marketing message to be strategic and correct — a quality event around flawless food and sports. But it can really be special.”

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

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