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Money talks in Super Bowl

Mihir Bose | 11:22 UK time, Monday, 2 February 2009

Modern sports are a marriage between athletic activity and mammon.

The romantics among us like to believe that whatever the money men say, sporting endeavour honed on honest hard work and laced with brilliance, plus a bit of luck, will always triumph.

But no modern sports would be possible without sponsors, broadcasters and advertisers putting in pots of money.

The Super Bowl, the sporting party that brings America together, from the White House to living rooms up and down the land, is the ultimate expression of this.

Yes, the match itself was superb and America will long debate whether it was the greatest ever Super Bowl.

The script could have been written in Hollywood - the underdog Cardinals living up to their reputation for much of the match then scoring a touchdown in the last few minutes that seemed to win it for them, only for the Steelers to score in the final seconds.

But this sporting drama could not disguise the fact that the Super Bowl is ultimately about recognising the men with the purse strings.

The NFL underlined this when, at the end of this match, the Super Bowl trophy, having been carried to the stadium by NFL great Joe Namath, was presented not to the Steelers team or their coach, but the owner, Art Rooney. Imagine Manchester United winning the Premier League and the trophy being given to Joel Glazer.

But then a few days before the Super Bowl, the man who has been the songster of America in recent decades explained why he was attending. He has no interest in football, he just wanted to use the occasion to promote his latest product.

Over the years Bruce Springsteen has often been courted by the NFL. This time he finally consented because, as he admitted, "We have a new album coming out dummy; come on there is a new record out in the stores. So we have our mercenary reasons of course."

For all his disdain for football, Springsteen found this Super Bowl so useful that he held his first press conference for 30 years.

This talk of money was, however, laced with a new fear - that the downturn made this Super Bowl different.

In the week leading up to it over 50,000 jobs were lost in America. A few minutes' drive from the stadium at a union office for carpenters the talk has been about finding jobs. In a state which lost 88,000 construction jobs last year, laid-off workers living on $250 (£175) a week unemployment pay could not imagine getting tickets costing $1,500 (£1,053) each.

The effect of this was to be seen on the party scene that accompanies Super Bowls. The magazines Sports Illustrated and Playboy decided not to host parties, and a study by Price Waterhouse estimated that direct spending on this year's Super Bowl would be $150m (£105m), $50million (£35m) less than at Phoenix and Miami, the two previous Super Bowls.

So why, amidst all this gloom, does the NFL remain confident that the downturn will not seriously threaten its status as America's game?

The reason is that NFL is based on a unique American sporting socialism. It believes, as Cardinals president Michael Bidwell put it to me, in competitive balance between teams; that no team should get so much money that it overshadows the others.

Pittsburgh celebrate

All 32 NFL teams share revenues equally. Individual clubs can earn a bit more in their local markets but not a great deal more.

Neither the Cardinals nor the Steelers earned much more by reaching the Super Bowl. Contrast this with the nearly £30m extra Manchester United earned in winning the Champions League.

The salary cap means most club expenditures are in line. Salaries could be a problem in 2010 when new negotiations are due, there are murmurings about problems with the players union and season ticket renewals will have to be watched. Already clubs are freezing prices and even during this season's play-offs clubs struggled to fill seats.

But NFL bosses remain confident that the downturn will not see too many changes.

One major reason for this is the way the NFL's controls not only regulate debt but ownership. You cannot just fly in from abroad and buy an NFL club. Yes, NFL clubs can suddenly up sticks and move but the owner remains the same.

Look at the Cardinals. Arizona is their third home but they are still owned by the Bidwell family which bought the franchise in 1932. The Steelers have also been in the same family since the 1930s and such long-term family ownership, unknown in the Premier League, is common in the NFL.

This gives the owners a stake in the NFL and its structure. They believe that their clubs are not like restaurants in a high street trying to do each other down, but part of a chain that needs to do well collectively if the chain is to survive and prosper.

And owners like Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots believe that ideas like salary caps could also work in England.

For many in the Premier League this will seem an anathema. The Premier League is successful, it does not need lessons from anyone and the American model is very different - it cannot be imported.

Yet the American idea that sports and money work best not through unchecked capitalism but when there is sharing is an idea whose time may have come.

And with the downturn impossible to predict, even successful brands like the Premier League would do well to look at it.


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