It was perhaps the most bone-rattling hit of the 2008 NFL season, a devastating missile strike by free safety Ryan Clark that effectively clinched a seventh trip to the Super Bowl for the Pittsburgh Steelers. With 3:34 to go in the fourth quarter of the Jan. 18 AFC Championship game, Clark launched himself at Willis McGahee, propelling his right shoulder pad and the top of his helmet into the Baltimore Ravens running back's face mask.
The force of the collision whiplashed McGahee's head back on its stalk like a crash-test dummy's and knocked both players out cold.
The hit, while especially vicious -- on an HD set you could practically see the cerebrospinal fluid dribbling out of McGahee's ear holes -- was also perfectly legitimate under the NFL's bylaws governing helmet-to-helmet contact. While it's padded with arcana about shoelaces and 'do-rags, the NFL Rule Book is fairly unambiguous on whether the helmet may be deployed as an agent of chaos. Yet it's safe to say that most of the tongue-cluckers who called for Clark's head later that night never bothered to consult the text. (It's spelled out rather nicely in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8.)
All of which, in an admittedly circuitous fashion, brings us to NBC. Since before the playoffs began, the network has faced a relentless tide of uninformed speculation about how it's been managing its inventory for Super Bowl XLIII, with commentators issuing dire bulletins about NBC's inability to close on the last remaining 8-12 spots. And yet students of the game say NBC is hardly in dire straits, a reassuring assessment given the twin burdens of a monster recession and a record-high rate card.
"Last year Fox was sold out by Thanksgiving. Take that out of the equation and there's nothing different about where NBC is today," says Larry Novenstern, executive vp, director of national electronic media at Optimedia. "There are always a few spots available heading into the last week before the Super Bowl."
As of late last week, NBC said it had yet to move 10 percent of its Super Bowl inventory, in line with media buyers' estimates. "All things considered, they're in pretty good shape," one national TV buyer notes. "The economy is brutal, and just in terms of perception, there's a risk of consumer backlash for anybody plunking down $3 million for 30 seconds of commercial time. How many paychecks is that?"
While buyers say NBC has held its ground on pricing, the much-cited rate isn't exactly an absolute. Top-drawer clients like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo paid less than $2.4 million for each 30-second spot, as both bought in bulk and are longstanding NFL partners. "There's this misperception that it was $3 million, take it or leave it," says Seth Winter, senior vp of sales and marketing, NBC Sports & Olympics. "If you just wanted the Super Bowl, the cost was $3 million. But we're looking for a larger investment across NBC Sports, so the approach was, give us a reason to modify the price."
With 4.5 minutes worth of ad time, A-B remains the most loyal sponsor of the NFL's marquee matchup, although there is some concern the brewer will scale back future Super Bowl commitments, now that the $52 billion InBev takeover is complete. "We haven't seen any impact yet because they have multiyear deals, but once those expire the big question is, what happens when inBev gets involved in day-to-day operations?" Novenstern says. "They could tell Budweiser to pull out of the Super Bowl altogether, or cut back from 10 spots to two. If that happens, MillerCoors will buy in."
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