Economy Has NFL Feeling Less Than Super
Even Sport's Biggest Week Loses a Little of Its Luster

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Super Bowl buildup, traditionally a week-long round of parties and corporate opulence in the host city, could have a different feel this year.

Next Sunday's game between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers in Tampa will be played against the backdrop of the national economic crisis, with the leaders of the National Football League still unsure about how deeply the country's financial woes will affect a sport that for decades has been a benchmark for popularity and prosperity.

"I still don't think we have a complete answer," New York Giants owner John Mara said. "Obviously, a number of teams have taken steps to control their costs. A number of teams have made decisions about ticket prices. But we still don't know what the total picture is, and I don't think we will for some time."

Playboy and Sports Illustrated announced in recent weeks that they would not be holding their annual Super Bowl parties. A celebrity golf tournament and party that was to be hosted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers players Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks was canceled because of a lack of sponsors, according to local media reports in Tampa. A few talent agencies also scrapped their party plans. Other big corporate parties, including the highly celebrated bash by Maxim magazine, are still on.

Visitors to the Tampa area this week are projected to spend upward of $150 million, a sizable sum but about 20 percent less than they would have spent under a healthier economy, according to a report by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Visitors will have shorter stays and will spend less in the hospitality industry and related businesses, the report said. The host committee has lowered its private fundraising goal from $8 million to $7 million.

"No one is immune, not the NFL or the Super Bowl or the host committee," Reid Sigmon, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Host Committee, said in a telephone interview.

Just how much different Super Bowl week will look and feel remains to be seen, however. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that while the league wants to retain the excitement surrounding pro football's annual championship game, it recognizes it must guard against too much showmanship at a time of economic hardship.

"I think the word I would use is extravagant," Goodell said in a telephone interview Friday. "You don't want that. We understand that. That's not what the NFL is about. But we do want the event to be exciting."

Sigmon said the host committee has not revised its estimate that 100,000 people will visit the Tampa area this week. "We still expect our hotels to be full," Sigmon said. "We still expect our restaurants to be full. We will fulfill all of our obligations to the league and to the community."

NBC, which has set a top asking price of a record $3 million per 30-second advertisement during the game, still had not sold 10 percent of its available spots as of the middle of last week. Last year's game drew 97.5 million viewers, the second-largest television audience ever, behind the final episode of "M*A*S*H." The nine most-viewed TV shows since 2000 are Super Bowls.

According to the NFL, the number of media organizations with Super Bowl credentials is actually up, due in large part to Internet media companies, the international press and a large local contingent in the Tampa area. However, others say they expect most newspapers to send smaller-than-usual contingents.

The NFL, which reduced its average ticket price for this season's playoffs by about 10 percent, cut prices for a limited number of tickets to the Super Bowl, reducing the prices for 1,000 tickets by $200 apiece, to $500 each. All 72,500 seats at Raymond James Stadium have been sold, with approximately one-quarter of the tickets priced at a record $1,000 apiece. Most of the tickets were priced at $800.

Goodell said that fans might find ways to cut costs but he nevertheless expects the Super Bowl to be undiminished as an event. "What we're seeing with the response and the demand for tickets is that there's extreme interest and excitement around the game," he said. "The hotel room demand is probably not as strong as it's been in the past, and that's probably a reflection of the economy. People might be staying with friends or things like that. But I don't think it will affect the event at all."

Still, there are signs that the recession is forcing belt-tightening in a league with nearly $8 billion in annual revenue that has known only steady growth for years.

A number of teams announced they won't raise ticket prices for next season. The Washington Redskins have said they won't raise prices for general admission tickets. The Detroit Lions, who went winless this season, went a step further and indicated that they will reduce some of their ticket prices.

Goodell announced last month that the league was eliminating about 150 of its approximately 1,100 jobs at its offices in New York, NFL Films in New Jersey and its television and Internet production facilities in Los Angeles.

The Redskins, one of the league's most valuable franchises, laid off at least 20 employees at Redskins Park, their headquarters in Ashburn, this month and an undetermined number at FedEx Field. The Cleveland Browns laid off 15 employees last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. According to the Plain Dealer, the layoffs could total as many as 40 employees by the time the cutbacks are done, or about 25 percent of the team's staff. The Browns confirmed to the Plain Dealer that there were layoffs but didn't specify how many.

Mara called it "a distinct possibility" that other teams will have similar workforce cutbacks. He said it's too soon to know how teams' ticket sales and sponsorship deals for next season will be affected. Goodell indicated the league is braced for an impact of some sort.

"Sponsorships, licensing, ticket sales potentially -- those are all things that we keep a very close eye on," Goodell said at season's end. "The good news is that the passion for the game has never been higher. There's more football. There's more appetite for football. We just want to keep being responsive to our fans and doing what's best for them as we work our way through this as a country, not just as a sport."

What the NFL has going for it in the bigger picture is that its national TV contracts, worth a combined $3.7 billion per year, all remain in place through at least the 2010 season. Its deal with satellite provider DirecTV for the "Sunday Ticket" package expires after the 2010 season. Its contracts with NBC, CBS and Fox run through the 2011 season. Its deal with ESPN for Monday night games runs through the 2013 season. And ratings remain strong. The 15 highest-rated TV shows in Pittsburgh last year, for example, were Steelers games.

"I think we're confident that our game will continue to be the most popular sport," Mara said in a telephone interview. "Some of us will be lucky enough to continue to play in sold-out stadiums. I'm sure revenues will be affected. I'm sure some sponsorships will be affected. But how much -- we don't know that yet."

As reporters surrounded Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill in the team's triumphant locker room after last Sunday's victory in the National Football Conference championship game had propelled the franchise to its first Super Bowl, he took advantage of his unique opportunity in the national media spotlight to make a light-hearted sales pitch.

"I'm told that there are a lot of people in St. Louis wearing Cardinal paraphernalia from 20 and 30 years ago," Bidwill said of his team's former home city. "And if this is going to any St. Louis radio station: We do have up-to-date merchandise available."

Bidwill seemed to be kidding, at least partially so. But it was also a small sign that dire financial times call for creative business plans, even for the mighty NFL.

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