Ever notice, around this time of year, that most ads encourage you to buy their products so you can be properly prepared for some variation of “The Big Game”? Not the “Super Bowl,” mind you. “This Sunday Night,” sure. “Championship Party,” fine. “Hordes of Large Men in Tight Pants Slamming Into Each Other to Satisfy Our Bloodlust,” no problem. But if you really listen, you won’t hear “Super Bowl” nearly as much as you might expect. Here’s why…
The NFL is so big its regular season games can dwarf other sports’ championships: A Cowboys-Seahawks matchup a couple years ago drew 29.4 million viewers, thumping the NBA Finals and the World Series. Indeed, 2015 saw Stanley Cup Finals ratings go up, but hockey’s finest moment was still nearly quadrupled by a game featuring a team that went 4-12.
With the Super Bowl, things get stratospheric: If 110 million Americans tune in next Sunday—more than have watched any non-football event ever—the league will view the game as a total failure. (Having set all-time U.S. viewership records the past few years, anything below that figure for Brady vs. Matty is a bust.)
The NFL likes viewers, but they like one thing more: money. This massive audience translated into $7.1 billion in revenue from the 2016 season. That sum is expected to increase this year, because the NFL never stops looking for more money. For instance: Super Bowl halftime performers aren’t paid, with the NFL only covering a performance’s estimated $10 million in expenses.
This hasn’t stopped the NFL from allegedly telling potential halftime acts that they would like a share of their future earnings, meaning the NFL wants the world’s biggest musicians to pay for the privilege of performing… and the plan might work, because where else can they go for that kind of exposure? (No band sees back catalog sales explode after putting on a killer set between the 2nd and 3rd period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup.)
So we’ve established two things:
1. The NFL has an unmatched ability to draw viewers, particularly when it comes to the Super Bowl.
2. The NFL wants to make as much money off this popularity as possible, particularly when it comes to the Super Bowl.
That is why the NFL is very careful about who gets to actually say “Super Bowl.”
In 2010, the NFL signed a $1.2 billion deal with Anheuser-Busch. The massive multinational beer company with countless brands across the planet got pro football’s league and postseason rights for six years, ensuring that (in the words of a recent press release) they will “return to the Super Bowl as the exclusive category advertiser for the 28th year in a row.” (Party!)
And after spending $200 million for the privilege of being an “exclusive category advertiser” in 2016, Anheuser-Busch damn sure doesn’t want to flip on the TV and see a commercial announcing some random craft beer is the “perfect brew for everyone’s Super Bowl.”
After all, the words “Super Bowl” are trademarked. This has no impact on most people. Fans are free to discuss the Super Bowl as much as they like online or anywhere else. The media isn’t really affected either, since there are fair use exceptions for trademarks. (Which is why I can repeatedly write “Super Bowl” as I write about the, er, Super Bowl.)
No, the problem comes when, as LegalZoom explains, it’s “likely to confuse the public as to whether the use is made by the owner or by another.” (Translation: If a beer company other than the one paying $200 million per year runs an ad suggesting that its brand is affiliated with the Super Bowl, it’s on, brother.)
And that is why countless advertisements refer to the “Big Game”, so companies can avoid directly mentioning the “Super Bowl”… while still hinting at it as strongly as legally possible.
What happens if a business that has not paid a sum containing at least seven zeroes uses those two magic words?
The NFL says that potential infringers are notified of the infringement.
Should they keep on infringing, a cease-and-desist letter is sent.
If they still don’t take the hint?
Then the lawyers spring into action and they’re perfectly willing to go after some tiny targets. (This article describes a lawsuit in Baltimore for alleged Ravens Super Bowl merchandise counterfeiting: The NFL only sought $100,000, or 1/100,000th of that billion in profit every year.)
The NFL is even willing to pursue its own players. Bose is the official NFL headphone, with the result the league bans players from wearing Beats by Dr, Dre or other brands on game days until 90 minutes after the game is finished. (Presumably, the cameras have left by this point.)
49ers quarterback/Beats endorser Colin Kaepernick tested the ban and received a $10,000 fine for his trouble. (Also, the next season his team benched him, though this is believed to be for non-audio reasons.)
Still confused about Super Bowl usage? Here’s a simple way to remember:
1. If mentioning the Super Bowl is likely to make the NFL money (by giving the Big Game still more publicity), say “Super Bowl.”
2. If mentioning the Super Bowl is likely to make you money, go with “Big Game.”
And if this is all too stressful, there’s always the Canadian Football League and its Grey Cup. (Just remember, “Grey” is spelled with an “e”, not an “a.” On behalf of Canada, thanks.)