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Volume 21 No. 10
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Electric event caps drama-filled season for Goodell, NFL

Super Bowl XLIX will go down in history as one of the most unforgettable championship events in sports and immediately entered into the discussion for Sports Event of the Year consideration for the Sports Business Awards. The weekend had a bit of everything: a league looking to put a controversy-marred season behind it; a hungry media eager to pounce on the league’s challenges and advance storylines; a city looking to showcase its economic revitalization to the world; and league sponsors and partners looking to capitalize on all of the hype and attention. It was capped off by the most amazing live-event experience I’ve ever been a part of.
What stood out to me after five days in Arizona:

> THE GOODELL WATCH: When Commissioner Roger Goodell met the media on Friday before the Super Bowl, it struck me how the tone and feel was far different from a year earlier, when the league had some fun by having a faux-snow fall on Goodell as he opened his address at the Time Warner Center. That felt like long ago.
This year’s event was far more anticipated and scrutinized because of Goodell’s challenging year. While I thought he performed better than his head-scratching press conference last September, it’s worth noting one top league official said afterward, “We had a pretty low bar to top.”

Goodell acknowledged the past year's challenges.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
A few takeaways from the event:

I was perplexed when he opened without the customary acknowledgment of the host city and team (he later came back to that as if it was an oversight) and felt it was odd that his early opening stressed, “Looking to the offseason, we will focus on innovation and technology in three key areas: the game, player safety and the fan experience.” The emphasis seemed tone-deaf to the bigger issues facing the league. But a check of the transcript shows that he did open by saying the season had “plenty of challenges, learning and real progress. … I truly believe that we will continue to make progress because the NFL is made up of good and caring people.” So while I expected a more forceful opening on the lessons of the past year, Goodell did acknowledge the year the league has had.

About four questions in, he was asked specifically about possibly “resigning or being fired.” This led to his strongest, most-honest answer: “It’s been a tough year on me personally,” he said. “It’s been a year of what I would say is humility and learning. We, obviously as an organization, have gone through adversity. More importantly, it’s been adversity for me. … We’ve all done a lot of soul searching, starting with yours truly.” He added, “We’re in a good place in knowing and learning and having a lot more humility.” Rare contrite words spoken by the NFL. Now the test is whether the organization acts more humble and acts on what it has learned.

While one could argue with Goodell’s delivery — some called it wooden, others called it cocksure — his remarks underlined a theme I have heard from those in and close to the NFL: There is serious frustration at the highest levels of the league that the steps and efforts made over the past year are not getting through the mainstream media and to the public. League executives are upset that all the steps they’ve taken, all the “progress” Goodell referred to, haven’t resonated with the public because the media isn’t articulating what’s been done. I believe that frustration was evident when he curtly answered a question from CNN’s Rachel Nichols about the perceived conflict of interest concerning outside consultants hired by the league to investigate alleged wrongdoing. “Somebody has to pay them, Rachel,” he said dismissively. “So unless you’re volunteering, which I don’t think you are, we will do that.”
 
A few other notes I jotted down:

Goodell is often criticized for his focus on revenue growth, one of his clear mandates from ownership, and he was realistic when asked if the league would reach its goal of hitting $25 billion in revenue by 2027. “I don’t know whether we’ll get there. … It’s something we think is practical, but we want to do the growth the right way.”

Like many in the media, I thought Goodell’s answer on his media availability didn’t match current reality. He said he understood that part of his job is to meet with the media. “I don’t know whether I meet with them at a press conference every week, but I’m available to the media almost every day of my job, professionally. We try to make ourselves available on a very regular basis. It is my responsibility, it is my job, and I will do that.”

That answer was heavily ridiculed in media circles, including in an ESPN roundtable following the address. ESPN’s Jemele Hill laughed and said, “We all know that’s not true.”

Adam Schefter asked anchor Hannah Storm, “How many requests did you make to the commissioner this year?”
 
She replied, “Every week.”

Schefter: “Every week?”

Storm: “Every week.”

Schefter: “And how many interviews did you get with the commissioner?”

Storm: “I didn’t get any.”

In addition, NBC Sports’ Fred Gaudelli acknowledged on Sirius Satellite Radio the network’s disappointment that Goodell refused an interview with Bob Costas and the host broadcaster of the game. The NFL’s refusal was surprising considering the message it wants to get across. Goodell has opened himself up to questions on his media accessibility that will be fair game now and worth watching.
 
Some of the criticism of Goodell was silly, such as shots over his appearance at an AFC championship pregame reception hosted by Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Anyone in the business knows these are common industry events and that his appearance would be customary. But after seeing and hearing the reception Goodell received, especially the loud boos when presenting the Super Bowl trophy, his leadership is the story I’m watching most closely in sports business.

Early last week, two writers I follow closely, Mike Reiss at ESPNBoston.com and Peter King from SI, both had new viewpoints worth noting. Reiss, who is obviously close to the Patriots organization, wrote, “For perhaps the first time, I sense Kraft is doubting Goodell’s leadership.” King noted the consistent criticism of the NFL’s leader and wrote, “What happens with the owners if the torrent of criticism doesn’t end? Let’s say he is still getting blasted from all corners by next football season. How long will the owners continue to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of all the negativity surrounding Goodell?”
 
I still don’t get a sense that Goodell’s job is in jeopardy, but there are new wrinkles that should be factored into consideration when looking ahead.

> THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT: Anheuser-Busch implemented a dramatic strategic change for its on-site “Bud Light: House Of Whatever” activation. After recent efforts focused on its top customers, retailers, bottlers, clients and VIPs, the company this year focused on creating an experience for its millennial audience. “Early in the planning process, we communicated to our stakeholders that we wanted to throw a party for millennials, not necessarily for you,” said Nick Kelly, Anheuser-Busch marketing communications manager.

Musical events for millennials played a large part in the Anheuser-Busch activation at “Bud Light: House of Whatever.”
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Last year’s much publicized effort took place on an ocean liner on the Hudson, so this year expectations were adjusted to develop a 70,000-square-foot setup in downtown Phoenix. “We knew we couldn’t get any bigger than last year’s boat, so this year, it was more focused on the experience,” Kelly said. There was music and 49 different “experiences” that were designed to appeal to local millennials, who were invited through social media sweepstakes or selected by on-site ambassadors at local bars.

It was intimate, with only 4,000 people experiencing the event over four sessions and three days, and the goal was to have one of the youngest and most talked-about parties in the city — while also getting more young people to drink Bud Light. Working with BBDO and digital agency VaynerMedia, A-B also designed it to be a content factory, creating enough video and short-form content to extend out six months, developing nearly 30 pieces of high-end programming.

The other long-term goal was to take the experience on the road to other events: music festivals, shows and other sports contests. It was clear this wasn’t a Super Bowl build-out –– there were no NFL marks or visuals of Super Bowl history — but a portable venue fit for future events and content generation that will extend into the summer. Kelly said A-B had set up social media “war rooms” on-site to enable immediate, real-time reaction to trending issues or possible opportunities in the local market. Afterward, Kelly said the company would analyze the data on local beer sales in and around the Phoenix market both before and after the Super Bowl, along with social analysis.

> HOST WITH THE MOST? It’s always fun to hear people’s favorite Super Bowl city. New Orleans always ranks high, Miami scores well, and Indianapolis remains a favorite for its one-time effort in 2012 that featured great weather and an easy, walkable footprint. I even heard a few people long for New York City. Overall, Phoenix received good marks despite the weekend’s events being spread out.

The city’s downtown was far more developed than seven years ago, when the city hosted Super Bowl XLII. With the NFL Experience, NFL House, the league’s hotel and media center, and major sponsor activations all downtown, the city had far more energy and events and did its best with its rock climbing wall and concert stages to match the community vibe of the zip line in Indy and toboggan ride in Times Square. But evening events were largely in Scottsdale or north Scottsdale, a solid 20- to 30-minute drive from downtown, making planning and logistics very challenging. Weather was also unfortunate, as the rain that hit Thursday and Friday not only affected planned golf outings and hospitality at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but also the number of parties held outdoors with little cover. But overall, area officials were thrilled to show off a vibrant, urban downtown that drew hundreds of thousands of fans walking through the streets taking in concerts and other events. While Goodell may have overlooked acknowledging his hosts during his opening, he did later say, “We look forward to coming back.” Don’t overlook the efforts of Cardinals President Michael Bidwill, who was pivotal in bringing the event to the area and was spotted throughout the weekend, hosting his league counterparts and global business leaders. I continue to be impressed by his growing role in league and community affairs, and the more time you spend with him, it’s easy to see why his profile is growing.

> SOMEWHERE IN SAN FRANCISCO … : A regional, spread-out Super Bowl will take place again next year. Much of the conversation in Phoenix focused on planning and activation around Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, with the game 42 miles away in Santa Clara. Most of the league events, NFL Experience and the media center, will be downtown, and most of the partners I spoke with want and expect major activation in San Francisco. But others acknowledged the challenge in a city where rooms and event space will go quickly, with the high level of both corporate and executive riches in the region.

Keep an eye on the Super Bowl host committee’s philanthropic efforts around the historic game, as officials are committed to making the game the most philanthropic Super Bowl ever, putting millions back into the region. The group has created its 50 Fund, a legacy fund that will distribute 25 percent of all the money raised by the host committee. Look for the first grant distribution at the end of February, where up to five grants valued at up to $500,000 each will be distributed. Additional distributions will be granted throughout the year, including 50 separate $10,000 grants, one per week beginning Feb. 23, to Bay Area nonprofits. The 50 Fund will target youth development, community investment and sustainable environments all within the Bay Area.

Another interesting angle to watch is how the league, brands and partners leverage Super Bowl 50. There is the obvious historic legacy and retro angle presented by an anniversary game, but it’s also taking place in the hub of innovation and forward-thinking technology. The host committee sponsor list aligns right with the Bay Area, with companies like Google, Yahoo and Intel. Many partners will want to feed off that message of progress, but you also understand the efforts and opportunities to recognize the history around the game.

Panthers LB Thomas Davis accepts the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
> AN OVERLOOKED HONOR: One of the most powerful moments of Super Bowl Weekend to me remains the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presentation and winner. I really wish more people could be exposed to the people who receive this honor. The league has worked hard to raise the award’s exposure, having Goodell announce the winner at its NFL Honors event Saturday night and salute the winner before the game on Super Bowl Sunday. But I wish more could be done to show society the efforts of these individuals; they are the best of what the league has to offer. Over the years, I’ve been so impressed by the winners — strong, classy, empathetic leaders of their communities. This year’s winner was Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. If you missed his remarks at NFL Honors, check it out online. He made an emotional call for action to his colleagues: “To the guys in this league, let’s take charge. Dare to be different. … Let’s change this world. We are well-compensated for what we do. Let’s show these kids how much we care about them. Let’s give the media something positive to talk about, instead of always bashing our league.” Strong words by a strong man whose exemplary efforts deserve attention at any time. All of society, not just sports, needs more stories like Thomas Davis.
Seahawks fans, outnumbering the Patriot counterparts, made their voices and enthusiasm heard among the usual corporate crowd at Super Bowl XLIX.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

> CLEANING OUT THE NOTEBOOK: It was easily the loudest Super Bowl I have ever attended, as Seahawks fans outnumbered Patriots fans by roughly a 75-25 margin. The Super Bowl is always criticized for having a corporate crowd, and it still skews that way, but I can’t recall a Super Bowl that brimmed with such enthusiasm and noise, with fans standing the entire game. Seattle fans traveled, and that demand fed into the record ticket prices on the secondary market. … The three games in London continue to be a healthy topic of discussion with league executives, who feel the numbers are all trending in the right direction. Two of next season’s games are sold out, while the third is very close. The early-window start time introduced last fall was a hit and will be implemented for all three games next season. Sources say attention is focused now on the Brazilian and German markets for possible game sites. League officials expect to invite top sports, corporate, business and event organizers from those markets to attend the London games and to discuss possible future games in those respective countries.

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