The New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick will be heading into his ninth Super Bowl on Sunday, tops among all NFL head coaches. And among current TV ad sales chiefs, his counterpart is CBS’ Jo Ann Ross, who has headed up network ad sales for CBS since 2002. For Ross, now president and chief advertising revenue officer, this is the sixth Super Bowl she is overseeing, more than all of her peers combined.
As she put the finishing touches on this year’s sales, Ross looked back on the most memorable moments of her six Super Bowls, from the other big controversy during the Janet Jackson halftime show to the year she secretly battled cancer to her showdown with the brand that decided to sit out the game for the first time in 23 years.
Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004): The other halftime show controversy
New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29
Average price per 30-second spot: $2.3 million (all data from Kantar Media except where noted)
Heading into her first big game as head of ad sales, “all eyes were on us, because it was the first Super Bowl under new sales management,” says Ross, who wasn’t daunted by the assignment. After all, “I oversaw the [Winter] Olympics”—which used to air on CBS—“and that’s like 18 days. And I have a great sales team.”
Her inaugural sales process was fairly smooth, but then things went awry at the game in Houston during that year’s halftime show, which became infamous following Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” as she performed with Justin Timberlake. But for Ross, the anxiety actually started a few minutes earlier, when Kid Rock, who had performed along with Diddy, Nelly, Jackson and Timberlake, unexpectedly inserted the words “Coors Light” into the lyrics of his song “Cowboy.” That angered Anheuser-Busch, which was the game’s exclusive alcohol sponsor.
“The client is in the suite, listening with headphones to the feed, going, ‘He said Coors!’” recalls Ross, who hastily got on the phone with the production truck trying to determine what had happened when the real halftime show controversy unfolded. “I had my back to it, and one of my execs walks in and she goes, ‘Holy shit, did you see what just happened? Janet Jackson just showed her nipple!’ And I’m like, ‘What did you just say?’”
In the ensuing pandemonium, Ross found herself escorting a livid Roger Goodell (who at that time was NFL COO, before becoming commissioner in 2006) to then-CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ suite. As Moonves and Goodell sorted out what had transpired (CBS pointed the finger at MTV, which had produced the halftime show), Ross spotted Tony Ponturo, then vp of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, who had been watching the game in Moonves’ suite.
“I came over and kissed him and he goes, ‘I wanted to talk to you about the Kid Rock thing—but I think you have bigger fish to fry. We’ll have breakfast tomorrow morning,’” says Ross, who kept talking with him after the game on the way to the Survivor after-party. Eventually, “He said, ‘Jo Ann, don’t worry about it. We don’t have to have breakfast; we’ll figure it out.’ He was being like, ‘I know what your life is right now,’” says Ross, who never had to make it up to him. “And that’s because of the relationship we have with A-B.”
After Ross smoothed things over with Ponturo, “I remember walking into the Survivor party and none of the clients were talking about the game,” even though a record 37 points were scored in the fourth quarter, she says. “Everybody was talking about Janet Jackson and her breast.”
Super Bowl XLI (2007): Quietly battling cancer
Indianapolis Colts 29, Chicago Bears 17
Average price per 30-second spot: $2.38 million
Ross’ biggest crisis that year was personal, not professional: She was quietly (and successfully) fighting ovarian, fallopian and uterine cancer (“I had a trifecta. It was synchronous.”) while she was conducting Super Bowl sales. “I was finishing up chemo, and my biggest concern was, would people know I’m wearing a wig?” Ross says, laughing. “Even though I had been wearing a wig since September of that year going into the Super Bowl.”
While that year’s Super Bowl ad-revenue haul should have paled in comparison to her health, “I’m an idiot, and I put my job before myself all the time,” says Ross. “I just didn’t want it to get in the way of work. I didn’t want people to look at me differently like, ‘Oh, my god, she’s got cancer.’”
To that end, “I purposely scheduled my chemotherapy treatments on Wednesdays, so I could be back in the office Thursdays and Fridays. On those Wednesdays that I had to go for chemo, everybody thought I was doing an offsite. And then I lost all my hair so it became obvious to some people, but I thought everybody was fooled,” Ross says. “I finished my last treatment right before we got on the plane.”
But there were some great memories as well during her time in Miami for the game, like when Prince, who performed during that year’s halftime show, played a set for her clients during a beach party the Friday before the game. “Prince was there, and I was here,” she says, gesturing a few feet away from herself. “Who doesn’t love Prince?”
CBS had grand plans to transport its clients to the stadium in a boat, but Mother Nature had other ideas, whipping up a rainstorm. “We were going to have a lovely boat ride, but we’re not going on a boat in the rain!” she says. “So we had to repackage all the lunches, and then we took buses to the stadium. It was a great Super Bowl, despite that.”
Super Bowl XLIV (2010): Pepsi backs out—and Tim Tebow ruffles feathers
New Orleans Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17
Average price per 30-second spot: $2.97 million
For Ross, the fiercest clash during this Super Bowl happened two-and-a-half months earlier, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, when Pepsi informed her that they wouldn’t be using the four units they’d put on hold—meaning that the soda brand would be sitting out the Big Game for the first time in 23 years.
A stunned Ross and her team traveled to Pepsi’s headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., for a powwow with the client and its agency. “They said, ‘We’re not going to have commercials to run.’ I’m like, ‘This is untenable, this is not how we do business!’ And we got nothing.” Pepsi’s four units had been “on hold, which is a verbal intention to order. People don’t pay for the spots until they air, unless it’s a brand-new client,” says Ross. “They did not come back and make good the money that they had put on hold. The money disappeared into thin air.” CBS did, of course, ultimately sell those units to other brands.
During the game, which was again held in Miami, Ross faced off with a different brand, which was upset to find its Super Bowl ad adjacent to the divisive Focus on the Family pro-life spot featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, who had infamously been advised to abort him. “They had a shit fit. How could I not tell them that this anti-abortion ad is going to [run next to theirs] because it was so political?” says Ross, who had been summoned midgame to speak with the client in one of the stadium’s suites.
“I knew that was coming,” she says, “But I couldn’t violate [Focus on the Family’s] confidentiality. We didn’t lie. I took it all on myself. I didn’t blame anybody. I was like, ‘It’s all on me.’” That client’s “angry reaction” was “what I expected,” Ross adds. “Once you take the responsibility, what are they going to do? Take another pound of flesh; fine, I’m prepared.” (She notes that she and that client “still have a great relationship.”)
Super Bowl XLVII (2013)—Going dark
Baltimore Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31
Average price per 30-second spot: $4.0 million
Ross was sitting in the New Orleans Superdome with clients (generally, clients with spots in the game watch from a suite, so they can keep an eye on their ads, while the other clients prefer to have seats in the stadium) when the power went out—and stayed out for the next 34 minutes. “The first thing we all thought was terrorism,” Ross says. “We were calm for the first five minutes.” But then she took her clients to “a fancy bourbon bar under the stadium. And we stayed down there until we figured out what was going on.”
While there was no cell service, the CBS suites have “hard lines” to the production trucks in case of emergency. In discussions with her team, higher-ups and the league, Ross settled on a plan: No ads would run during the 34-minute blackout since “no one is going to pay for them!” And once the power was back up and the game began again, the network simply reran the last commercial pod that had aired prior to the blackout, and then continued airing the commercials in their original order. “It ran as it was supposed to run. It’s not like we changed positions on them,” says Ross. “And nobody was pissed.”
Super Bowl 50 (2016) —Last-minute moves
Denver Broncos 24, Carolina Panthers 10
Average price per 30-second spot: $4.8 million
Super Bowl 50 was the first time that Moonves had publicly proclaimed the network would intentionally hold back a couple of ad slots to sell at an upcharge to a brand trying to get into the game at the last minute. While “that was not really our strategy, it ended up being true,” says Ross, who landed in San Francisco on Thursday only to be told that one movie studio client with a Super Bowl ad was suddenly looking for “relief, which means, ‘Please, Jo Ann, we need our money back. The spot’s not good enough; we want to get out.’”
Meanwhile, two other brands—a tech company and a consumer-facing tech company—were looking to get in at the last minute. Problem seemingly solved, except that after a day and a half, the movie studio decided that it wanted to stay put in the game after all. As Ross tried to find space for the late arrivals, she was involved in a dispute between the tech company, the NFL, and network standards and practices “over literally one word” in that brand’s spot.
Ross and her team worked feverishly at the hotel from Thursday through Sunday morning. “We had to do some more horse trading within the pregame and the postgame. There were some tense moments in my office, but we got it done and we were able to accommodate every single request and get more money at the 11th hour. So it worked out really great,” says Ross, who didn’t get everything squared away until less than 24 hours before kickoff. “That’s why we say we’re never sold out.”
Super Bowl LIII (2019): Approaching the finish line
New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams
Average price per 30-second spot: $5.1 million-$5.3 million (per sources close to negotiations)
As usual, Ross began her sales process for this year’s game the day after Super Bowl LII aired on NBC last February. “We look at the numbers, we look at the clients, we watch every commercial and see who was there that wasn’t there last year, how did they format, did they sneak something in. And we start preparing and do the book that we sent to clients,” she says.
As her team approaches the finish line for the Feb. 3 game in Atlanta, “I’m very happy with where we are,” says Ross. She always tries to stay under the radar, but even more so this year. While a typical Super Bowl would include “five or six NDAs” with clients, “this year it seems like a lot more. More than a handful and less than three handfuls,” says Ross. “Every day, I have to remind people, ‘We’re under NDA on this one; don’t even whisper it in the halls!’”
While she’s navigating more NDAs than she used to, one thing hasn’t changed about Ross’ approach to selling the Super Bowl: “Getting to the point where you say”—she claps her hands—“’We’re done. Now let’s go and have fun.’”