The National Football League is facing the very real prospect of its vaunted Super Bowl half-time show coming full circle, returning to the excuse for toilet breaks and channel-hopping that it was before the enforced recruitment of only the biggest performers.
It took a disastrous exodus of viewers during the interval between quarters two and three of Super Bowl XXVI to prompt the league into action, as Gloria Estefan, a marching band and two former Olympic champion skaters failed to hold the attention of viewers previously engrossed in the clash between Washington and Buffalo. While toilet breaks and beer runs were understandable, the loss of approximately 17 million viewers to a one-off live episode of sketch comedy show In Living Colour on a rival network proved too much for match broadcaster CBS.
The organisers’ response was to aggressively recruit Michael Jackson, then the biggest pop star in the world, in a bid to at least maintain, if not enhance, ratings. The plan worked as some 91 million viewers – the second-largest in Super Bowl history at the time and 12 million more than the previous year – stayed tuned for the show, while ratings actually increased between halves for the first time ever.
Since then, attracting global artists and increasing the spectacle of each half-time show has worked continuous magic equally for the organisers and performers, with Super Bowl audiences never dipping back below 83 million and the talent boosting both their profile and recording sales.
While some have not made the most of their opportunity – think Janet Jackson and ‘Nipplegate’ or M.I.A. and her middle finger – the half-time show grew to the point where it was being discussed almost as much as the game itself, with online betting markets for first songs, costume changes and guest appearances sitting alongside those for touchdowns, interceptions and game-winning kick distances.
The NFL too has benefited, with ratings routinely rising at half-time, and the last nine Super Bowls all attracting American television audiences of 100 million plus. A 30-second Super Bowl commercial spot, which cost $850,000 back in 1992, is now worth $5m, but the past couple of seasons seem to have thrown the process into reverse, with artists actively turning down the invitation to play on one of the biggest television stages of the year.
With Kaepernick apparently being blackballed by teams, even those in dire need of a half-decent quarterback, would-be half-time performers began similarly shunning the Super Bowl. Jay-Z turned down the chance to appear at last year’s game, claiming solidarity with Kaepernick, while several equally mainstream artists rejected offers to perform at this season’s showpiece in Atlanta, including Rihanna, Pink and Cardi B.
In their place, the organisers have settled on Maroon 5 as the headline act, with guest appearances from Travis Scott – who requested a $500,000 donation for charity Dream Corps to appear – and OutKast member Big Boi, but it is clear that, for the first time in more than 25 years, the show is less of a pull than it once was.
As a result, this year’s extravaganza in Atlanta is under serious pressure to perform lest the league be forced into a rethink.