Inside the Ambitious Super Bowl Ad That Will Kick Off the NFL’s 100th-Season Celebrations

The league's era-spanning spot will feature 50-plus football greats and a cameo by Twitch star Ninja

It’s a jump ball during a take for (l. to r.) Arizona Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald, Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James and Jacksonville Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey. Photography by Eric Espino/NFL

The Super Bowl, which will be played Feb. 3 in Atlanta, is the NFL’s annual crown jewel and, arguably, the ad industry’s too. Last February, close to 120 million people watched the game in the U.S. across broadcast and digital platforms. But it’s not just about the action on the field. The commercials are among the most highly anticipated—and hyped—of the year.

And while the NFL itself always has an ad in the Big Game—last year’s Dirty Dancing homage with New York Giants teammates Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning and 2016’s heartwarming “Super Bowl Babies,” for example—this year, the stakes are higher. The NFL is kicking off a year’s worth of celebrations for its 100th season amid divisive issues like players taking a knee during the national anthem, the safety of the game (last summer, CBS News reported that more than $500 million in claims were approved as part of the NFL’s concussion settlement) and even which entertainers would be willing to play the halftime show. Earlier this month,  a Louisiana attorney filed a suit against the league after a much-discussed missed call by a referee led to the Los Angeles Rams’ victory over the New Orleans Saints.

In 2015, in the wake of highly publicized cases of domestic violence involving some of its players, the NFL donated time to and partnered with No More, a coalition of groups fighting domestic violence and sexual assault. There was a buzzed-about PSA (by Grey, the league’s agency of record for a decade, which ended with 72andSunny’s win at the end of last year) addressing the issue, and subsequent No More PSAs that aired during the Big Game in both 2015 and 2016.

This time around, the league is taking an altogether different approach, pivoting away from controversy in the hope of changing the conversation.

“A big part of our strategy is getting back to the game and getting back to why people love the game and engage with football,” explains Tim Ellis, who came on board in August as the NFL’s chief marketing officer after seven years at Activision Blizzard.

Indeed, history and humor play crucial roles in the ad, as Adweek learned during visits to the set while it was being shot in a downtown Los Angeles studio. The commercial poses the question: What would happen if a football game broke out in the middle of a banquet celebrating 100 seasons of the NFL?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning share a light moment on set.

League commissioner Roger Goodell kicks off the proceedings, and Oakland Raiders’ running back Marshawn Lynch—oozing his signature mischief—sets into motion a domino effect that highlights more than 50 NFL legends and current stars. Picture the playful juxtaposition of a stuffy ballroom setting with guests in elegant evening attire, a beautifully decorated cake nearly as tall as a lineman, a fumbled football and (mostly) tuxedoed players acting on their gridiron instincts. Yes, a football game—and a very funny one—breaks out and in the process pays homage to some of the league’s most important historical moments, memorable storylines and outsized personalities.

“You see a football and a cake, and you kind of know where it’s going to go … and you hope it’s going to go there,” says Glenn Cole, 72andSunny co-founder and creative co-chair. “Then it goes there.”

During the three days of shooting, the set was a who’s who of NFL greats. There were members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins clad in teal jackets. Then some of the main stars from the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty took their turn. At one point, San Francisco 49ers legends Joe Montana and Jerry Rice reunited, with Deion Sanders (who had a long rivalry with Rice playing for multiple teams) playfully interrupting. Also featured: the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, and the league’s current superstars, like Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and Los Angeles Rams teammates Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.