NFL Has a Cultural Tin Ear

Originally posted: January 29, 2012

by Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University

It seems ridiculous to think a music concert would fill its intermission break with a few downs of live football on the stage. So, one must wonder why the National Football League feels so compelled to fill its Super Bowl halftime with a pop concert. Marketing professionals advise companies to keep their promotional efforts linked to the product being pitched. Madonna’s upcoming performance at Super Bowl XLVI, next Sunday, as well as halftime shows of recent years, has no relationship to the professional football product.

The supposed rationale for this merger of pop culture and football is to get some people to watch the game who otherwise wouldn’t have watched. Is the NFL that insecure to think its biggest game of the year can’t generate sufficient viewership? There wasn’t a pop concert at halftime of the playoff game when Denver upset the Steelers, but the ratings were enormous. By now, the Super Bowl is such a cultural phenomenon that it doesn’t need the crutch of pop-music halftimes to make a go of it. No football fans will cancel their Super Bowl parties if a burned-out entertainer doesn’t fill halftime.

If the NFL’s objective is to attract viewers who otherwise wouldn’t watch the big game, then let’s think outside the box of concerts and consider having Bill O’Reilly do an on-field halftime interview with Barney Frank. Let’s get the brainy viewers into the tent with a special “Jeopardy” edition in which Ken Jennings takes on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Perhaps we can reach those non-NFL fans who like cooking shows and let Paula Deen stir up a surprise post-game buffet for the players.

Sure, there is music at halftime of college games as marching bands perform. But those performances do connect to the college product because the marchers are in school colors, play traditional school songs and — we think — walk the same campus sidewalks as the players. Madonna is not likely to sing a Super Bowl tribute to Vince Lombardi.

Having a concert extravaganza at halftime also disrupts the flow of the supposed main event, a championship football game. Madonna recently complained in a television interview that she only has eight minutes to set up, 12 minutes to perform and seven minutes to take down the stage. No doubt, they will miss those deadlines, and halftime will stretch well over 30 minutes. That has to disrupt the athletes’ competitive tempo. By contrast, halftimes for the NFL’s four quarterfinal games averaged 14:33 from final first half whistle to third quarter kickoff. The Band of the Fighting Irish takes 30 seconds to get on the field for a halftime show.

Scouting is such an important component of football, but it appears the NFL failed to do sufficient scouting of its halftime performer. Sure, Madonna has high name recognition and has made big money from her music and movies. She also brings a ton of cultural baggage that will chase away as many viewers as she attracts. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has complained to the NFL for giving Madonna the stage, writing that Madonna’s “offensive lyrics, lewd behavior and misappropriation of sacred symbols are reason enough not to have her perform.”

In a year when the highest-profile NFL player, Tim Tebow, has provided a contrast to NFL bad boys, the NFL has doubled down on its cultural edginess by giving a platform for a controversial performer who by now is pretty much old news. At 53, Madonna won’t impress the sought-after younger generation. She does fit with the NFL’s other geriatric halftime shows, including McCartney, Springsteen, The Who and Rolling Stones.

If the NFL is so smart with this halftime extravaganza thing, maybe other high-profile sporting events should follow along. A performance of the Metropolitan Opera when NASCAR has to clean up a wreck at the Daytona 500 would be great. The NBA could extend halftime of its championship series with a string of GOP debates. The ratings would jump for baseball if we took a 30-minute break after the fifth inning of World Series game seven for Oprah to interview Pippa.

The most memorable Super Bowl halftime ever was noteworthy for the wrong reasons. If the NFL doesn’t provide close monitoring of this year’s halftime, the Janet Jackson fiasco of 2004 could end up looking like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

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