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3:15 P.M., TODAY, TV: CHANNEL 4. RADIO: KNX (1070)

Best Game Around : Nothing Slaughters Ultimate Cash Cow


In the real world, the numbers make no sense. No one would spend millions of dollars on a 30-second television commercial in the real world.

"A lot of people would consider it to be an insane amount of money," an advertising executive says.

But this isn't the real world. This is the Super Bowl.

As the NFL convened in San Diego for Super Bowl XXXII--two weeks of mass marketing with a few hours of football tacked on the end--the money that swirls around the game has never seemed so utterly unreal.

Hundreds of millions in advertising and stadium renovations. Billions in network broadcast rights. It all seems excessive, even for the NFL, even on the single most lucrative day in sports.

" 'Insane' is probably too harsh a word," a sports marketing analyst says. "But the numbers seem incredibly inflated."

No one can explain them. And this week almost everyone wants a piece of the action.

The Super Bowl, it seems, can justify any sort of madness. Even the NFL's new $17.6-billion television deal.

Seventeen-billion dollars is roughly the gross domestic product of Paraguay.

Only the Olympics and World Cup, multiweek events that come along every four years, command a higher price worldwide.

Four networks paid a combined $2.2 billion annually for a football season that generated $1.2 billion in advertising last year. ESPN will have to raise the fees it charges cable operators. Experts say ABC, CBS and Fox could lose more than $150 million each next season.

With that amount of money, any of the three networks could buy the Florida Marlins.

But experts say the deal makes more sense when you consider not only regular-season games but also a shot at the Super Bowl every few years.

"The Super Bowl is definitely the most attractive piece of the puzzle," said Jim Andrews, vice president of IEG, a Chicago firm that tracks sports sponsorships. "There's nothing else like it."

Half of the 30 most-watched programs in history are Super Bowls. The only other sporting event to crack the list is the 1994 Olympic showdown between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

The Green Bay-Denver game is expected to attract 130 million viewers today. Lopsided scores don't matter. A kind of mass hysteria takes hold.

"People watch because they know other people are watching," said David Stewart, chairman of USC's marketing department. "They know that everybody is going to be talking about it the next day."

But the Super Bowl means more than ratings. Keith Bruce, director of sports marketing for Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco said: "As a marketing vehicle, it's number one."

Tonight, NBC will use the game to do some prime-time jockeying. It will follow with a special "3rd Rock from the Sun," hoping the carry-over audience will boost ratings for a series that seeks to fill the shoes of the departing "Seinfeld."

"[The networks] want that crown jewel," Bruce said of the Super Bowl. "It's a flagship property they can use to sell themselves."

Pushing the Product

Networks also can use the Super Bowl to sell advertising for a record $1.3 million per 30-second spot. That's more than twice the rate for "Seinfeld" and more than four times what it cost to advertise during Game 1 of the most recent World Series.

"I think the numbers are getting to the point where these companies should be saying 'Wait a minute,' " said Jack Trout, a marketing consultant in Greenwich, Conn.

With so much at stake, ad men spend big money to create something spectacular, something with "chatter value"--a commercial people will talk about the next day. They try to impress the newspaper and television reviewers who critique Super Bowl ads.

"You could do a lot of other things with that money," Trout said. "The last thing you want is for some guy to write a column the next day and say that everybody booed your commercial."

Which is precisely what happened to Auto-By-Tel, an Irvine company that sells cars online. Its animated spot during the Super Bowl last year was universally panned. One ad executive was quoted as saying, "It just looked cheap."

A nightmare for a young company trying to make a name for itself, right?

"We got 30,000 [customer inquiries] the first 20 minutes after it ran," company President Pete Ellis said. "It was the biggest single day we'd had up to that time."

Auto-By-Tel will be back on the telecast today but don't look for anything too fancy. No talking lizards or supermodels. Let the big corporations worry about that.

When Ellis looks at Super Bowl advertising, he sees only one thing.

"The size of that audience."

The City Scene

Down in San Diego, Chuck Nichols eyes the same prize. As president of the San Diego Super Bowl Host Committee, he knows his city paid dearly for its piece of the action.

Millions were spent on everything from traffic cops to throwing parties for the media. More significantly, the city expanded its football stadium to the tune of $78 million.

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