Super Bowl LV: A host of questions
Every February since 2013, Pepsi has sponsored the Super Bowl halftime show, a massive television platform that’s also the focal point of a weeklong, in-person marketing blitz. Last season, Pepsi invited hundreds of VIP guests to Miami, launched a limited-edition bottle, plastered its brand around the city and hosted a concert featuring Lizzo, Harry Styles and Mark Ronson two days before the game.
The pandemic has put in doubt any hopes of a similar blowout this year, and not just for Pepsi but for every other corporation that tries to leverage the world’s biggest single-day sporting event. Optimists say there’s plenty of time to wait and that the pandemic could well improve by Super Bowl LV, scheduled for Feb. 7 at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.
But even if there’s a major breakthrough in testing or vaccines by early February, Pepsi’s corporate policy bans all nonessential travel, entertainment and working from offices until at least Jan. 1, casting a pall over its Super Bowl planning. Any commitment to activate in Tampa cannot be based only on the assumption that things will get better.
“We won’t put employees at risk in nonessential situations, or customers at risk, or consumers at risk in nonessential situations, and that includes all live events, including sporting events until at least January,” said Justin Toman, head of sports marketing at Pepsi.
The NFL and the Tampa Bay host committee are preparing for as close to a normal game as possible, trying to keep themselves in a position to thrive if conditions improve. The NFL intends to host the Super Bowl Experience Presented by Lowe’s, all outdoors on the Tampa River Walk, and expects to have some number of fans in Raymond James Stadium.
It’s not out of the question that widespread rapid testing or a vaccine will become available in the next five months. But that is far from certain, and major hospitality and experiential marketing needs are planned starting in October, with deadlines for financial commitments coming as soon as Thanksgiving, experts said. Policy, good workforce relations and public image will all drive corporations to be extraordinarily cautious.
“You can’t say, ‘My employees can’t come back to work yet, but I’m going to roll out a buffet for all my customers,’” said John Tatum, CEO of Genesco Sports Enterprises, which advises NFL sponsors including Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch and Campbell’s Soup.
The NFL’s official hospitality provider, On Location Experiences, has been selling Super Bowl ticket packages at prices that appear stable to slightly down from last year’s prices in Miami, listing specific seats inside Raymond James Stadium and associated travel and hospitality perks. That’s not because league executives are unaware of the challenges, but because the league won’t rule out a “normal” game until it has to. The prices don’t appear to reflect pandemic uncertainties, though the seller has made it clear a cancellation or ban on fans would trigger refunds.
“The NFL’s focus on the Super Bowl is to have as close to normal a Super Bowl as is possible,” said Marc Ganis, the consultant with close ties to several owners. “The process right now is focused on having a full Super Bowl — stands, events, things like that, while also preparing for any adjustment that needs to be made. As it relates to COVID-19, the world is very likely to change between now and January. There is, from everything we have read, a high level of expectation that we will have at least one vaccine available by the end of this year or early next year.”
An August survey by Institutional Investor found that a majority of financial decision-makers didn’t expect to resume business travel until November at the earliest. In a Conference Board survey released Sept. 3, 35% of companies said they don’t know when workers will be required to come back to offices, and another 29% said it won’t be until at least early next year — or until a vaccine is available.
Multiple sources say NFL planners have raised contingency plans with 16,000 fans at Raymond James (about 25% of capacity), and another with 30,000 fans (about 46%). But the latter would require a change in NFL policy or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; those CDC social-distancing guidelines act as an effective cap at roughly 25% of stadium capacity, regardless of what local guidance says. So far this fall, no fans have been permitted for either Tampa Bay Buccaneers or University of South Florida games.
Decisions about NFL-controlled events such as the game itself or the Experience can likely wait longer than decisions about the separate brand-driven party scene. But they are ultimately tied together, one sponsor executive said. “If the league came out and said it’s 25% [stadium capacity] that just automatically scales down everything else,” this executive said.
The availability of tickets and luxury packages via On Location, owned by Endeavor and the NFL, is likely a means to gauge preliminary interest rather than a serious effort to book sales now, said Patrick Ryan, co-founder of the ticket consultancy Eventellect.
“Let’s say there’s a CEO who’s interested, and he thinks, ‘I at least want to know what the prices are like this year, in case we decide to go, so she has some reference point,’” Ryan said.
If sponsors and other business partners of the NFL simply pass on the Super Bowl this year, it could lead to a sea change in ticket distribution. The 30 non-participating teams may also want fewer tickets if the business convention/party atmosphere is off. An NFL spokesman said details about capacity and ticket allocation will come later.
“We may have a full stadium, but maybe it’s a different demographic than it typically is at a Super Bowl,” Ganis said. “Maybe it’s partially full, the same demographic, but a smaller number.”