A Super Bowl Ad That Could Benefit Everyone

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It turns out that the National Football League can teach us a thing or two about keeping Covid-19 at bay.

This may seem a bit surprising given the headlines from earlier in the season: the closing of team practice facilities when players tested positive; or the games that had to be rescheduled because of infected players; or the game in November when a hapless receiver on the Denver Broncos practice squad became the starting quarterback because all the regular ones were in quarantine. (Denver lost 31-3.) Yet in the run-up to this year’s Super Bowl, the NFL released a study with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that measured the league’s success in preventing infections between early August and late November. The results were impressive.

According to the study, 11,400 players and staff members took 623,000 PCR tests during that time, which identified 329 cases of Covid-19. That’s a positivity rate of 2.9%. From the start of its abbreviated training camp, the NFL established protocols that included the usual: mandatory mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, social distancing and so on. Every team member, whether player or staff, also wore a “proximity device” whenever they were in a football facility. That device recorded how close people got to each other and for how long. And it allowed for an unusually rigorous degree of contact tracing.

After an outbreak of Covid-19 among the Tennessee Titans in October, a rattled NFL and its scientists investigated how team members had become infected. People contracted Covid-19 when they took off their masks in close quarters. That wasn’t a surprise. But they could also get it when they had interactions that were supposed to be safe: standing farther than 6 feet apart for conversations that lasted less than 15 minutes. Indeed, some interactions leading to infections took less than five minutes. (There appear to be no cases in which players were infected during a game or practice. It would appear that being outdoors is the best way to avoid infection.)

Teams were told to stop eating together, to avoid in-person meetings and to quarantine anyone who came in contact with someone who tested positive. Teams that got careless paid a price (See Denver Broncos, above.) Most became much more careful. According to the Wall Street Journal, “teams under those restrictions saw their median number of interactions of within six feet for at least 15 minutes drop by 60%.” You may also recall that in October, the league fined five coaches $100,000 each for failing to wear their masks properly on the sidelines. The NFL was never going to eliminate Covid-19 among its personnel — no organization has been able to do that — but it had enormous incentive to contain the virus so that the season could be played. Against the odds, it succeeded.

Now we arrive at the Super Bowl — the Covid Bowl, I’ve heard it called a few times. Pandemic restrictions have greatly reduced the usual media hoopla that takes place in the week leading up to the game. Sponsors and wealthy ticket-holders aren’t throwing big parties. Only around 25,000 fans will attend the game, and they will be given masks that they will have to wear in the stadium. The fans will include 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers and other first responders who received free tickets, courtesy of the NFL. The league is working with the CDC to put on a halftime show (featuring The Weeknd) “that will be safe and responsible,” an NFL spokesman told the Tampa Bay Times.

Even the ads are going to be a little different. It took several months longer for CBS to sell its ad inventory (at $5.5 million per 30 seconds) than Fox did in 2020 as the pandemic caused companies to rethink their ad strategies. There won’t be any commercials for Budweiser — for the first time in 37 years — but Anheuser-Busch says it will spend its money instead on vaccine awareness. Coca-Cola is sitting out the Super Bowl as well. But Huggies — yes, diapers — are in. Rebecca Dunphey, Kimberly-Clark North America’s president of personal care, has said the company plans to feature babies born on Super Bowl Sunday in its ad.

Door Dash and Uber Eats will also be advertising — appearances that are obviously connected to the pandemic, which has made delivery services nearly essential. But they promise to spice up their ads with humor, so that the thought of the virus won’t be too much of a downer. (Uber Eats is bringing back Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World — aka Mike Myers and Dana Carvey; it’s also organizing a $20 million campaign for struggling restaurants.) In the ad previews I’ve seen, there have been lots of references to the awfulness of 2020 — but they’ve all been light.

Every year, of course, the NFL runs a handful of its own ads, which in recent years have tried to position the league on the right side of national issues. Despite its initial hostility to Colin Kaepernick “taking a knee” to protest police brutality, the league more recently has embraced Black Lives Matter. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in June, less than two weeks after George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

There’s no doubt that the NFL has tried to play a role in fighting the pandemic. Its website lists dozens of actions its teams have taken to aid their communities. Its insistence that coaches wear masks during games is meant in part to serve as an example for viewers. It has put out educational videos and published its protocols. I’m sure a few people have looked at them.

But the Super Bowl will attract an audience of around 100 million people in the U.S. In this era of streaming and cord-cutting, no other television show has anywhere close to that audience. Imagine if the NFL decided to package what it has learned this past season in a polished one-minute ad. Imagine Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes talking about the importance of wearing masks; or Tyreek Hill showing how the players kept their distance during weight training; or Jason Pierre-Paul talking about how being tested helped keep the players safe — and made the Super Bowl possible.

The Super Bowl on Sunday is not going to be the diversion from real life that it usually is; the pandemic will be hard to avoid, whether viewers are looking at the coaches on the sidelines or at the ads. Then again, it seems likely that the virus is going to be with us for months to come. An NFL ad about its Covid-19 experience might not bring in the money that Huggies will, but it just might make a difference.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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