The Super Bowl is a popular event in America. It’s the Easter Sunday of sports. People who normally don’t pay attention to football will fill the pews in living rooms and sports bars across the country to watch the game on TV. Various estimates show that there will be over 100 million American viewers.
The commercial breaks get a lot of attention. Just as many of the once-a-year worshipers prefer the church music over the sermon of the resurrection, many of the less faithful will pay more attention to the advertisements than the game itself. Indeed, these commercials are now considered entertainment. Everyone seems to have views on the best and worst of them. It’s not likely that you’ll have a conversation about the game the following Monday without hearing about someone’s favorite ad. The Internet will be full of polls as soon as the game is over.
Of course, everyone knows these ads cost a lot of money. A thirty-second spot cost on average over $3 million the last two years. I’ve read that the price will be higher this year. I’ve never taken the time to figure out the return on investment for these ventures, but on the surface it does not seem to add up. Sure enough, here’s an article about the companies who have wasted the most money on Super Bowl ads, including Anheiser-Busch, who spent a quarter billion dollars from 2002-2011, while seeing their market share drop over the same period. Still, it’s hard to say that these people don’t know what they are doing. They sell more beer than anyone else in this country and none of it tastes very good. Old habits are hard to break and I’m sure it is heresy at headquarters of some of these companies who pay for the ads to consider the sidelines on such a glossy day. It’s a self-perpetuating system. Since so many people will be watching the TV, approximately a quarter of whom are from affluent households, according to Nielsen, big money will be spent to get to those viewers and maintain corporate images. Egos must be tended to as well.
People break out their wallets on Super Bowl Sunday. On average, Americans will spend about $70 each. There’s a range certainly. Some will be happy with a take-out pizza and a Coke, while others throw big parties, buy clothing adorned with their favorite team’s logo or even find reason to buy a new television. The big spenders go to the game itself. Ticket prices are outrageous, in the true meaning of the word. Today, the NFL’s ticket exchange lists seats for the lower section at the fifty-yard line. One seat for one football game. That will be $25,572, thank you. Too much for your budget today? Here’s something in the upper deck for $1,592. Preferred payment method is Visa, a proud sponsor of the NFL.
The NFL is wildly popular and is a cash machine. Season tickets for the 2014 San Francisco 49ers games cost $850-$2,000 each, but fans cannot even buy them until they pay a one-time license fee of $2,000 – $12,000. I’m not sure if parking is included. The thirty-two teams generate roughly $9 billion in revenue each year, about $281 million per team. The players and coaches are paid well. The two teams in this year’s Super Bowl pay their players salaries of nearly $250 million combined. The players on the winning and losing teams will earn another $92,000 and $46,000 for Sunday’s big game, respectively. The league itself is a non-profit organization; it does not pay income taxes. (Tax reform anyone?) The league collects dues from the teams and then pays for costs and expenses to run its business, all on a taxpayer subsidy. In 2012, it collected $255 million and spent $333 million, including more than $29 million to its commissioner.
We’ve seen the NFL growing into this big business for years. Even the broadcasts have changed. Every game follows a well-defined script of story lines about the teams, players and other personalities that the league and its mouthpieces create. We don’t hear much of anything novel or interesting from the people in the booth anymore. It’s even more tiresome to hear them drone on because of their contractual requirements to hit us over the head with their sponsors every step of the way – “the Toyota Red Zone,” the “Visa Half-Time Report,” and such. They tell us that there is an official light beer, potato chip, credit card, luxury car, sports car, pickup truck, cell phone and every other last thing for sale. The best run, pass, kick, and defensive play of the game, the pre-game, post-game, every time out and other last bit of the game are even sponsored. The last few years, there is also a fascination in the broadcast booth of the owners, general managers and other league executives. They cut the cameras from the field and team sidelines to show these people sitting in their comfortable booths watching over their investments. It’s quite a juxtaposition when the winter weather is particularly harsh and the players, coaches and fans are doing their best to protect themselves from the elements.
So certainly, none of this is any secret and Americans just go along. We lay our money down and watch the games. However, I became a little riled up about this last week when I read about the NFL’s shabby treatment of the cheerleaders it puts on the sidelines. These women are featured part of the big show every Sunday. They are strategically placed on the field, wear carefully designed outfits and the TV cameras focus on them throughout the game. So you would think that the league would distribute a bit of the largess afforded others in the organization, right? I did. Not so, however. As it goes, the wages for these people are paltry. The owners of the Dallas Cowboys generate about $1 million in revenue for themselves from their cheer leading squad from community appearances, merchandise and such, but only pay the women $150 per game. Average earnings for an NFL cheerleader for a full year seems to be between $1,000 and $2,500. This all adds up to an hourly rate that in some cases falls below the legal minimum wage.
Adding insult to injury, it’s alleged that the Oakland Raiders don’t pay their cheerleaders until the season ends. Last week, current and former team cheerleaders filed a lawsuit claiming unfair labor practices, including in addition to this deferred payment scheme, that they were not paid for all the hours that they worked, were not paid overtime, they were not compensated for expenses they were required to incur to do their work, or even provided legally mandated work breaks.
If this is the case, it seems like an extreme example of trying to balance the books on the backs of the weak. The Raiders have been mismanaged for some time and their finances are messy. They have been paying $49 million, more than a third of its $123 million in players salaries, to players who were traded or cut from the team. This isn’t unique to them. Other professional sports teams negotiate these types of contracts, but the extent of the Raiders’ bill creates a problem for a team that has been “rebuilding” for years. Perhaps there are good reasons that they hold back pay for the cheerleaders until the end of the season that I am not aware of. And certainly employees’ grievances aren’t always what they seem. But even if the claims from these women are not entirely correct, the pay scale seems abusive and wrong to me. And the overall treatment seems unprincipled.
I couldn’t care less if the NFL had cheerleaders. In fact, I prefer that they got rid of all the cheerleaders, mascots and other amusement park silliness. I have absolutely no idea why these people engage in NFL cheer leading activity at all, particularly for such low pay. They receive something out of it that I can’t appreciate and the NFL and its owners seem happy to exploit those desires.
The NFL is facing challenges that will keep its lawyers and public relations teams active – building evidence that the league hid evidence about concussions from its players, increasing resistance from the public to ticket prices and questions from Congress about the league’s non-profit status are all brewing back at the home office. On its own, this litigation with the cheerleaders doesn’t do much to damage the league’s image. But it adds to the tarnish.
But none of these matters will be evident this weekend. It’s the Super Bowl. Just like the cheerleaders, most of us will be in line to play our roles in this Sunday’s carefully manufactured spectacle. I’ll be ready myself. Go Broncos!