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Super Bowl

How Dry I Am: Why the Super Bowl Will Remain Liquor-Free

By Published on .

Liquor commercials may be coming to the NFL this season, but don't expect tequila, vodka, whiskey or gin to make a Super Bowl spectacular.
Liquor commercials may be coming to the NFL this season, but don't expect tequila, vodka, whiskey or gin to make a Super Bowl spectacular. Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images
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If the NFL's recent decision to lift its longstanding ban on liquor advertisements is likely to make the upcoming season a slightly more bibulous affair, football fans shouldn't expect to see the hard stuff on the Super Bowl menu any time soon.

As much as the NFL's media partners welcome the chance to usher in an untapped category, liquor marketers effectively will be shut out of Super Bowl LII and LIII. The league hasn't issued any restrictions on Super Sunday spirits ads, but Anheuser-Busch's existing deals with NBC and CBS grant it exclusivity in the alcohol category during the Big Game.

Insiders say that the first Super Bowl that may feature in-game liquor advertising is Super Bowl LIV, which is set to air on Fox in February 2020. Fox's category-exclusivity arrangement with Anheuser-Busch expired when the final gun sounded in this year's Patriots-Falcons game.

Theoretically, NBC and CBS could accommodate a liquor brand looking to make a splash in the Super Bowl if the prospective client agreed to execute several buys on the local affiliate-level. This winter, Yellow Tail wine got around the A-B category exclusivity by stitching together a skien of local buys that put its 30-second spot in as many as 70 media markets.

CBS took a similar approach when it first kicked the tires on a primetime liquor ad placement back in 2009, when it aired a branding spot for Absolut during the third hour of its broadcast of the 51st Annual Grammy Awards. In lieu of a national buy, Absolut invested in 30 seconds of airtime at the affiliate level, airing its spot in 14 of the top DMAs in a patchwork effort that reached approximately 31% of all U.S. TV households.

Thus far, the networks haven't made much hay out of the NFL's decision to open the liquor floodgates, although one broadcast ad sales boss said the move has been a long time coming. And while it's too early to gauge how the market will respond to the new opportunity, buyers suggest that the most likely candidates to get in on the ground floor are those brands that already buy time in late-night talk shows and on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

"The brands that you see pop up quite a bit on 'SportsCenter' and in ESPN's NBA games, the Captain Morgans and the Patron tequilas, are probably going to show up in 'Monday Night Football,'" one national TV buyer said.

New blood is always welcome, but some insiders say the influx of liquor cash isn't likely to make anyone forget about the big breweries. "Most of the [liquor brands] aren't exactly rolling in marketing dough," said one ad sales exec. "They don't have Budweiser money to throw around, and the cost of entry is as steep as anything on television." Indeed, a 30-second spot in a national NFL window that features a huge ratings draw like the Dallas Cowboys can fetch upwards of $800,000.

Per Kantar Media, Anheuser-Busch in 2015 spent some $388.9 million on national broadcast and cable inventory, or roughly eight times the $48.5 million Johnnie Walker/Crown Royal/Smirnoff distributor Diageo spent on TV in the same period.

As far as in-house regulations are concerned, each NFL TV partner adheres to federal regulations as well as its own voluntary, self-imposed advertising guidelines. For example, while the rule of thumb is that alcohol advertising must be limited to programs that attract an audience that's at least 71.6% of legal drinking age, NBC's advertising standards are far more stringent. Ads for distilled spirits that air in NBC sports programming are acceptable only if 85% of the audience is age 21 or older, while late-prime and late-night (10 p.m.-11 p.m. and 11:35 p.m.-1:35 a.m.) shows featuring liquor ads must deliver a 90% legal audience composition.

Per the terms of the NFL's liquor-ad initiative, the networks will be limited to four 30-second booze units per game, and no more than two spirits ads may air in a given quarter or at halftime. An additional pair of liquor spots may air in the pregame and postgame shows. All spirits ads in NFL broadcasts also must include prominent social-responsibility messages; these include, but are not limited to, DUI prevention, drinking in moderation and references for assistance with alcohol-related issues.

The NFL's evolving stance on liquor advertising comes on the heels of a five-year wave of booze bucks that have cascaded into late-night shows like "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." And while the introduction of spirits spots is consistent with a gradual loosening-up of some of the No Fun League's more intractable rules and regulations (this season, elaborate touchdown celebrations will be tolerated, if not encouraged), other seemingly contradictory restrictions remain in place. For example, while NFL games are replete with ads for erectile-dysfunction remedies, spots for any and all forms of contraception are strictly prohibited.

However the booze initiative shakes out (the NFL very pointedly characterized this as a single-season experiment), the embrace of the harder stuff by TV's last great reach vehicle speaks volumes about America's shifting attitudes toward good old-fashioned vice. Categories come and go as certain behaviors fall out of favor. To wit, the very first sponsor to appear in ABC's inaugural broadcast of "Monday Night Football" was Marlboro. The cigarette brand appeared at the top of the Sept. 21, 1970, Jets-Browns game, or about three and a half months before ads for tobacco products were banned from the nation's airwaves.