As Super Bowl disasters go, this was somewhere between Bruce Dern plotting to blow up the Goodyear Blimp over the Orange Bowl and the lights in the Superdome going out for 34 minutes in the third quarter of an already tedious Ravens-49ers game. But a little quick thinking (and an inspired bit of sartorial incentive) helped keep Super Bowl XXVI out of the loss column for CBS.
It's Jan. 26, 1992, midway through the first quarter of the Washington-Buffalo game. The dapper CBS ad sales boss Joe Abruzzese, who has an eye for this sort of thing, is admiring Tony Ponturo's Nicole Miller tie, which, in stark contrast to the prevailing floral trend that has made a botanical riot of the neckwear back in New York, is splashed with little footballs. As VP-media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, Mr. Ponturo is CBS' biggest Super Bowl client, and he's looking forward to seeing if Jim Kelly and the Bills' high-octane no-huddle offense can keep pace with a Joe Gibbs squad that's been lethal on both sides of the ball.
While the two North Jersey guys are cracking wise about Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas' seeming inability to locate his helmet and a botched Washington field goal, Mr. Ponturo suddenly spots his colleague Peter McLoughlin hustling his way up the aisle, a brick-sized cellphone thrust out in front of him like a radioactive diaper. "This can't be good," Mr. Ponturo says, and although the phone is still a few yards away from his ears, Mr. Abruzzese can already hear the rasp and crackle of distinctly unhappy noises emanating from the device.
Mr. Ponturo fields the call, and as sure as night follows day, it's August Busch III on the line, calling from his sprawling Florida compound. The beer baron, who is hosting a Super Bowl party for a few dozen friends and marketing execs, would like to know why the second of eight commercials he's paid to air in the CBS broadcast just broke up and sputtered out halfway through its allotted 30-second run.
If the sound of some $850,000 being flushed down the porcelain throne isn't deafening enough, The Third is even more incensed by the doomed ad's placement. According to the A-B chief, the truncated spot aired immediately after an in-house promo for CBS' presentation of the upcoming Daytona 500.
This is bad. This is Pete Carroll calling the dumbest play in Super Bowl history-bad. This is Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" saddling up a Clydesdale and galloping full-speed into Christina Aguilera forgetting the words to the National Anthem while M.I.A. flips America the bird-bad.
Mr. Ponturo, who now has a look on his face that suggests he's just had a vision of himself humping up and down the steps in the nosebleed seats of Giants Stadium after being busted down to the rank of assistant beer vendor, turns to the only person who can possibly get him out of this pickle. "Joe, if you can fix this, the tie is yours," he says, his fingers working the silk like a string of rosary beads.
(Now, if you'll forgive the metatextual intrusion, I'll sort of step aside and let Joe Abruzzese finish the story. For the sake of context, he's spinning the yarn for a room of 250-plus friends, family members, colleagues and other assorted well wishers, who have gathered on this night in December at New York's 21 Club to celebrate the close of his 46-year career in sales.)
"So I go down to the production trucks with Tony, and the guy says, 'I showed the commercial, and it was fine on our end,'" Mr. Abruzzese recalls. "I call New York, and they tell me it went out clean. Chicago, the same. L.A.? 'Fine.' Detroit: 'Looked good from where I'm sitting.' Etcetera, etcetera. So all I can do is ask the executive producer, Ted Shaker, if he can do me a tremendous favor and would he please re-run this commercial. I tell him, 'If you can't, I understand, because it's against all policy and something that just isn't done, but it would be a good thing to do. If you can.' No yelling, no screaming, just 'Look, this is a very important client and a very dear friend of mine. Whatever you can do.'
"Now, in spite of everything we're hearing from New York and all the other cities, Ted agrees to re-run the spot. And rather than cramming it into one of the assigned pods, he arranges for it to run during an unscheduled TV timeout in the second quarter. It was the first-ever isolated 30-second commercial in a Super Bowl, and, as far as I know, the only complimentary spot. Tony goes, 'That's fabulous, you just saved everything!' and then he unknots the tie and hands it over. And then they all flew back to St. Louis at halftime. They didn't miss much -- lousy game."
Mr. Abruzzese's unflappable Joe Montana-esque grace under pressure went a long way toward making August Busch III and everyone else at A-B very satisfied with the company's relationship with CBS. Remember, Budweiser not only had purchased more in-game airtime (four-and-a-half-minutes) than any other sponsor, but the brewer also paid a premium to retain the exclusivity that came with serving as the official beer of the Super Bowl. Even though the network offices couldn't identify a problem with the "Cutout Football" spot, carving out a standalone pod for a re-air was the only right move for CBS to have made.
"The next day, we get the report back and it says the feed to the bottom third of the country broke up. It was a satellite glitch," Mr. Abruzzese says. "So I was right to stick my neck out for Tony, and we were right to re-air it. We didn't know it at the time, but sometimes you just have to take a flier. But Tony was so pleased by that, the next year we did a three-year deal on a napkin because of the trust we'd established. And, swear to God, I still have that tie."
CBS wouldn't carry a subsequent Super Bowl for another nine years, having lost its NFL rights to the upstart Fox network in December 1993. And as it happens, CBS' broadcast of that 2001 game (Super Bowl XXXV) would prove to be Abruzzese's last Super Sunday hurrah. In an unprecedented move, he would leave CBS to join Discovery Networks as the head of its ad sales operation in October 2002.
Mr. Ponturo brought an awful lot of Budweiser business to Discovery once Mr. Abruzzese had settled in. He retired from A-B in 2008 and went on to undertake a second career as a Broadway impresario. Mr. Abruzzese in 2010 invested in his friend's production of "Lombardi," a play based on a week in the life of the legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
"Trust is the most important asset a sales person can ever have," Mr. Abruzzese says. "You earn it by your actions. Err toward the client and you'll never disappoint them."