The Super Bowl is not a Game -- It's a Product

Last Updated Feb 1, 2011 9:17 AM EST

I've thought of the Super Bowl as many things -- sporting event, marketing event, music event -- but never as a product in itself. But just think. In terms of revenue, brand awareness, global interest, and as a subject of social conversation, the Super Bowl must be judged one of the most successful products ever.

So what are the lessons to be learned about how this product has grown into a $9 billion business over the 44 years of its existence? One is that it pays to tie your product around community, says Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "It's a totally feel-good time. Clearly, products can thrive when they are surrounded by family or communal rituals that make people feel good."

Another lesson is the power of collaborative advantage, she says. Each team is actually a franchise of the National Football League. Teams are independently owned, but operate under league bylaws. In return for putting a competitive product on the field, the franchisees receive incredible exposure, shared marketing and TV revenue, an infrastructure for drafting and signing new talent, and an overall salary and compensation structure negotiated with the player's union.

"By promoting the sport, the NFL gives every team a stake in helping other teams thrive. Few industry associations have been able to do this as effectively as the NFL. In many fields, there should be abundant opportunities for consortia and alliances to pool resources for the good of every member -- such as joint marketing by arts organizations in a region."

Read her full blog post on HBR.org, Four Winning Lessons from the Super Bowl.

I'll add another lesson. The best products are often those that serve as platforms for others to succeed. With their smartphones, Apple and Google provide digital stores that can be used by content creators to sell their wares. The more apps that are sold, the better for both the phone developer, the network service provider, and the app developer prosper.

The Super Bowl is one big giant platform for others to shine. Companies compete to create the best advertisements. Travel agents create destination packages around the event. According to the USDA, Super Bowl Sunday is the second largest day for food consumption, behind only Thanksgiving, so food vendors are in hog heaven. And, yes, the players -- this year the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers -- try to provide a compelling game to keep demand high and bring in new customers. The Super Bowl is one big virtuous circle.

Well, enough of the unchecked enthusiasm. We need to look at the other side of this deal. What could stop the NFL juggernaut? I'm seeing two management issues that could cause the NFL to fumble the golden goose.

1. Poor risk management. Next year, the league could increase the regular season schedule from 16 games to 18 games -- two more chances for players to get injured. And that's a significant problem because injuries are already on the rise. A total 16 percent of all players were placed on injured reserve this year, up from an average 11 percent from 2002-2009, according to the NFL Players Association. Fans won't pay for a product that's diluted when their favorite players are out of the game.

2. Lockout blues. Unbelievably, the owners and players are threatening to do the one thing that surely could dampen fan enthusiasm for the 2011 season and beyond: a work stoppage. Caught in an increasingly acrimonious negotiation, the threat of a labor strike or employee lockout is becoming increasingly prevalent. Baseball was ruined for years after a player strike canceled more than 900 games and the postseason in the years 1994-95.

What do you think are the downsides of the Super Bowl as product? Is it in danger of creating too much hype? See any weakness in the NFL itself and its chief executive Roger Goodell?

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(Photo by Flickr user Jayel Aheram, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.