James Ruth: “Companies can hardly avoid the Super Bowl”


James Ruth: “Companies can hardly avoid the Super Bowl”

Mr. Ruth, you are the head of marketing for the NFL team Tampa Bay Bucceneers. Sunday is the Super Bowl – the big American football season finale between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. How important is a day like this for you and the Americans? The NFL would probably argue that every game is a cultural event. But the Super Bowl is really different. The response to this event is unsurpassed; all Americans would probably see it that way. And of course the World Cup final in the States is smaller in terms of pomp and fan mobilization than the Super Bowl. Even if you're not a football fan, the features section and pop culture conversations here are all about that.

In Germany it makes a big difference who is in the DFB Cup final, for example. Dortmund against Bayern electrifies significantly more people than Leipzig against Freiburg last year. How is the Super Bowl? Different. It doesn't really matter who plays. But that is also due to the league system, which builds up to this one game for months. There are fewer of these singular events in German football. A cup final is sometimes such an event. But even the most exciting duel doesn't shape pop culture in Germany for weeks.

What do the two final teams from Kansas City and San Francisco stand for? The pairing is actually interesting because the teams have a completely different narrative. The Kansas City Chiefs are like FC Bayern in Germany, a team that has been to three of the last four Super Bowls. They are the team that everyone wants to beat and the team with the highest goals. With all the noise surrounding Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, this has only increased off the field. A lot of people love underdogs in sports and that's why they support the 49ers. The exciting thing is that many experts even expected the 49ers to play for the Super Bowl. So you're not an outsider in terms of sport, but you're portrayed that way. This leads to neutral fans being in favor of San Francisco - with the inclusion of the Swifties, perhaps.

The Tampa Bay Bucceneers last won the Super Bowl in 2021. What does something like that do to a brand like the Bucs? I wasn't in the job there myself. But it was one of the most surreal Super Bowls because it took place in the middle of the Corona crisis. We were the first team to win in our own stadium, but had to limit the number of spectators and much more. The experience wasn't the same, but the legacy was. It's like a kind of seal of quality that never goes away.

In addition, you had an absolute superstar in your ranks with player Tom Brady. Yes, there were many fantastic players on this team. But one player can sometimes be enough to raise the level of 50 other players on the team. That was the case with him.

The Super Bowl thrives on all the stars who attend the game; from the stories, from the halftime show, from the advertising. Is the impression that the Super Bowl is more of a business event than a sporting event correct? I understand the impression. But I would say that both are true. Such a big event is unimaginable without brands and sponsors. But the reason they are there is because of the cultural influence on the fans. As I said, one week a year all we talk about is the Super Bowl. And in a positive environment, which is what makes it so exciting for brands. The Super Bowl is a commercial event because fans care about it. One in three Americans watches the Super Bowl. And they don't just watch it, they talk about it and go through all the phases of emotions. This doesn't just happen on the field, but also off it. Through the halftime show, the TV commercials and everything else that goes with it. Companies looking for size and influence in the USA cannot ignore the Super Bowl.

And that justifies the $7 million that is charged for a 30-second commercial? Well, every marketing manager in the big Fortune 500 companies is probably wondering that. $7 million is a lot of money - although the size and impact are undeniable. Nevertheless, the truth is that the Super Bowl is in tough competition with the best advertisers. You can easily get lost with your spot. So it's not just about spending the money, but also about the implementation and the strategy behind it.

Then asked differently: Would you invest the 7 million? If I have a good plan, yes. It's always about how many people can I reach and what is the engagement like? And in the USA, the Super Bowl works very differently than traditional TV advertising. People don't want to switch off, they actually want to look consciously. Some even just watch the TV commercials and then discuss them with friends on Monday. Many media outlets are producing photo series of what companies have advertised this year. These are unique extensions to a company’s reach.

The NFL functions differently than the European sports market in many ways. A lot of things are centralized – including marketing. Then what is your job as head of marketing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? A very fair question. In principle, centralization can be observed everywhere in the world, including in the Bundesliga. Part of the success comes from the fact that the internationalization of the Bundesliga is initially centralized. The NFL and its marketing manager Tim Ellis are doing an impressive job here. Not just who we market to, but more importantly, how we market. The NFL is a huge research and data machine when it comes to marketing. The teams still have a wide range of topics of their own.

Namely?It is the teams that are at the forefront of contact with the fans. The NFL, as an amorphous central organ, cannot create this connection. And there are numerous ways to make this connection. At the Bucs, for example, we are working on developing a stronger identity of our own. This is a huge project.

What does it look like? Many sports teams are too interchangeable and no one knows what they stand for. Here in Tampa Bay, for example, we have a long history with pirates. All city marketing revolves around it, and our Bucs logo is also a pirate. There's a lot to be said about that. Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, for example, do the same with their worker narrative. And that's why I became interested in St. Pauli 20 years ago. It is precisely this interest that should be aroused. People should engage with the club and its history because that ultimately binds them to the club. Identity is particularly important when it comes to internationalization.

If you talk to NFL fans, the main thing they praise is that football is a unifying event. Ultimately, the club doesn’t matter – you celebrate together. Wouldn't such individualization be an attack on your own strength? I wouldn't see it as an attack, perhaps as a readjustment. There is a strong connection between fans and their favorite clubs. You don't even change clubs. However, the NFL has managed to build rivalry and fandom together in a healthy way. We don't have hardcore rivalries like in football.

And this culture can also work in Germany – the country that has declared the NFL to be the most important growth market? What makes Germany so interesting for the NFL? It is clear that the NFL will have to look beyond its own borders at some point. Domestically, it's about new, young target groups. But otherwise she has pretty much fulfilled her potential. Things are completely different abroad. Germany is a logical address here because it has a long history of sports culture - and also with American football. The sport has actually always worked well here.

King football still rules in Germany. Before your job, you helped set up the US soccer club Austin FC and are also very familiar with European soccer. How do soccer fans differ from football fans? Soccer and American football are very different. You can't just steal fans from another sport. And American football fans are very different from European ones. While this may sound crazy from a European perspective, I'm serious: the depth of American soccer culture is unique. The percentage of fans who engage deeply with the club and the sport is phenomenally high. We see big steps forward in the growth and quality of the MLS football league. But there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to quality. In the NFL it's almost the opposite. The quality of the NFL will always remain unrivaled. But the fan culture is not really developed, especially not internationally. The examples from European football help us here. So it's more about learning together than about common target groups.

Let's look at next Sunday: Who will win the Super Bowl? I don't want to commit to that. Many Americans will be rooting for the 49ers. But the Taylor Swift effect has also earned the Chiefs some sympathy. The Chiefs probably have more experience, but San Francisco has greater squad depth. It will definitely be a high-class game. But who will win: I have no idea.

This article first appeared in the business magazine "Capital", which, like stern, is part of RTL Deutschland.