From Brand Blowups to Blackouts, CBS Ad Sales Chief Jo Ann Ross Has Seen It All in Her 6 Super Bowls

A look back at the most memorable moments

Jo Ann Ross, pictured here at the NFL Today Studio in New York City, has headed up network ad sales for CBS since 2002.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

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.

Kid Rock’s 2004 performance caused a big headache for Ross.
Getty Images

“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.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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