George Foster explains how the NFL turned the Super Bowl into a wild success

George Foster
George Foster studies the economic impact of mega sporting events like the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl 50 is expected to draw a million visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area, making it a financial boon — and a logistical headache — for local economies. For a business perspective on America’s Big Game, LEE SIMMONS sat down with Graduate School of Business professor GEORGE FOSTER, who pioneered the school’s program in sports management.

Ten years ago, Foster wrote a case study on Super Bowl XL; now he’s following up with another study to see how the event has changed. He explains how the NFL turned 60 minutes of gridiron action into a marketing juggernaut, how host cities benefit and who really wins when it comes to the bottom line.

As a commercial enterprise, the Super Bowl is a tremendous success story. And it seems to get bigger and bigger every year.
Absolutely. Fifty years ago it was, well, a football game. But as the pageantry grew up around it, it became a day-long event. Then it ballooned to four days by the 1990s, and now we’re up to 10 days of activities — parties, receptions, concerts, media days, a fan village, appearances by players who aren’t in the game and so on. It’s like a pop-up theme park. And most of those events are sponsored. Corporations spend enormous sums to be associated with the Super Bowl, and in the process they build the Super Bowl brand itself, making it even more valuable. The league has really managed this well. There’s this huge ecosystem that’s grown up around the game, largely fueled by other people’s money. In the process, it’s evolved from a sporting brand into a sports-entertainment brand and really now an entertainment-sports brand.

Where the entertainment comes first?
Right, because now it’s this whole tapestry of events. For Super Bowl 50, companies put together weeklong entertainment packages for their clients with lavish parties and trips to Napa for wine-tasting and jaunts down to Pebble Beach for golf — the ability to offer perks like that is now a big criterion in selecting host cities. Some of them get tickets to the game, maybe in luxury suites, but quite a few people will fly home Sunday morning to watch it on TV. Then there’s this whole unreal phenomenon of people intentionally watching the TV commercials so they can be in on the conversation about which is the best ad. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you don’t want to be left out. It’s all part of this mega-event.

Who’s responsible for making it a success?
The responsibility is shared, but the local host committee does a lot of the coordination and serves as a liaison with city agencies. As the Super Bowl has grown, the budgets of these host committees have grown increasingly large — you’re talking about hiring top-level people in event management for several years. But again, that’s not a cost to the NFL; the host committee has to get its own funding.

For Super Bowl 50, news outlets reported that Santa Clara had gotten the NFL to defray some of its security expense while San Francisco didn’t. How do cities cut a good deal with the NFL?
Cities that expect the NFL to pick up the tab will learn very quickly that that’s not the business model. From the league’s point of view, the cities benefit from brand enhancement and added revenue from all the visitors. By hosting a Super Bowl, they get to showcase themselves to the rest of the world. In turn, the league expects them to provide the necessary infrastructure and logistics.

Read the entire interview on the Graduate School of Business website.