How Much More Do Things Cost Today: The Super Bowl Edition

In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, we can be certain of a number of things. Someone will suggest that the Monday after Super Bowl Sunday should be a national holiday. The food journalism industry will grind to a halt with party menu suggestions. A current pop song will be selected as the background music for the stirring video recap/build-up to open the broadcast (like say, Band of Horses’ “The Funeral”). The impact on the local strip clubs will be examined. A competition will be held in which people make a commercial for a product and the winning commercial will be broadcast.

It’s all strangely comforting, this time when America has the Super Bowl all up in it. As this column is dedicated to taking some element of life that we all take for granted and examining how its cost has changed over time (such as with TVs, or martinis), as adjusted for inflation (of course), we are accordingly ready this week for some football. Specifically, let’s look at the cost of running those television commercials, then the cost for the tickets to the actual event itself (these are rumored to actually exist!).

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There are an array of Super Bowl trivia factoids that make the rounds each year: a whole lotta guacamole is consumed (eight million pounds being the stat that makes the round), it’s the biggest day for domestic violence in the U.S. ( apocryphal!), the half-time demands on American sewage systems is famous (and apocryphal!). Maybe factoids is the wrong word; more like old saws.

And the old saws are fun, apocryphal or not. They are an important contribution to the communally enjoyed small talk of the universe we live in. All that guacamole that may or may not be consumed? Well, it’s possible to take the potential amount of guacamole, figure out how many avocados will be consumed, and what could be done with all those avocados! Eight million pounds of guac is the figure often cited. So, if all that gauc was made from two avocados, then each of them would be as big as the Staten Island Ferry. (This can be repeated, and will be, for Cinco de Mayo.) See? Fun!

But let’s talk about TV, as the amount of money the network charges for a thirty-second spot is another favorite gambit to trot out this time of year. The Super Bowl commercial is now as much a cultural element to discuss as the game itself. There are the ads we all remember (Mean Joe Greene giving the kid his jersey in 1979; clip above), and the ads that launched companies into unimaginable success (Apple’s 1984 introduction of the MacIntosh). (Would you like an archive of Super Bowl commercials? Try this one.) There were even the commercial promotions that broke (possibly terrible) ground in how television advertisement would work, such as the Bud Bowl, in which animated beer bottles would simulate an entire football game, first broadcast during Super Bowl XXIII in 1989, or even promotions broadcast on networks not airing the Super Bowl but scheduled to take place during half time, like the promotion of “In Living Color” on Fox during Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, and Animal Planets’ Puppy Bowl, now in its ninth year, which no living human can resist. Beer, “In Living Color” and puppies all experienced spikes in popularity following these broadcasts.

The rights to broadcast the Super Bowl cost an awful lot of money, even considered as part of the general NFL rights packages the networks agree to, said to average upwards of a billion dollars a year. And selling the inventory of broadcast time is a way to make that money back. In 2011, the broadcast included forty-eight minutes of commercials, which is only twelve minutes less than the amount of time in a regulation game. The amount charged for commercial airtime is generally the most that any network will be able to charge that year.

So let’s look at how much the average thirty second Super Bowl spot cost, in dollars adjusted for inflation.

We’re starting with the first televised game of what would become the Super Bowl in 1967, as it was initially known as the NFL-AFL World Championship Game. A little history there: First there was the National Football League, started in 1920. In 1960, a group of owners that were refused NFL franchises started the American Football League. It wasn’t long until there was basically open warfare between the NFL and the AFL—competing for new players, poaching older talent, squeezing each other out of markets, etc. By 1966, they agreed to merge, with the leading team of each side meeting for the “world championship,” more popularly (starting in 1970) known as the Vince Lombardi Trophy. So not only was the first Super Bowl not called the Super Bowl (a much-debated brand name that wasn’t installed until the third one, in Miami), but it was also broadcast by two networks, CBS and NBC, as each had the rights to broadcast NFL and AFL games, respectively. Also note (sorry, Green Bay fans) that no copy exists of either telecast, as the videotape used at the time was comparatively expensive and frequently taped over for eventual broadcasts. So if you find one in your parents’ garage, congratulations, you are a kajillionaire.

The averages are as follows, with the conversion to current dollars (2012, to be precise—the BLS Inflation Calculator hasn’t yet been updated to 2013 values) in parentheses:

1967—I, Los Angeles: $40,000 ($275,000)*
1968—II, Miami: $55,000 ($363,000)
1969—III, Miami: $55,000 ($344,000)
1970—IV, New Orleans: $78,000 ($462,000)
1971—V, Miami: $72,000 ($408,000)
1972—VI, New Orleans: $86,000 ($472,000)
1973—VII, Los Angeles: $104,000 ($538,000)
1974—VIII, Houston: $107,000 ($498,000)
1975—IX, New Orleans: $110,000 ($469,000)
1976—X, Miami: $125,000 ($504,000)
1977—Pasadena: $162,000 ($613,000)
1978—XII, New Orleans: $185,000 ($651,000)
1979—XIII, Miami: $222,000 ($702,000)
1980—XIV Pasadena: $275,000 ($766,000)
1981—XV, New Orleans: $324,000 ($818,000)
1982—XVI, Pontiac: $345,000 ($820,000)
1983—XVII, Pasadena: $400,000 ($922,000)
1984—XVIII, Tampa: $450,000 ($994,000)
1985—XIX, Palo Alto: $500,000 ($1,066,000)
1986—XX, New Orleans: $550,000 ($1,152,000)
1987—XXI, Pasadena: $575,000 ($1,162,000)
1988—XXII, San Diego: $600,000 ($1,165,000)
1989—XXIII, Miami: $675,000 ($1,250,000)
1990—XXIV, New Orleans: $700,000 ($1,230,000)
1991—XXV, Tampa: $800,000 ($1,394,000)
1992—XXVI, Minneapolis: $800,000 ($1,309,000)
1993—XXVII, Pasadena: $850,000 ($1,350,000)
1994—XXVIII, Atlanta: $900,000 ($1,394,000)
1995—XXIX, Miami: $1,000,000 ($1,507,000)
1996—XXX, Tempe: $1,100,000 ($1,610,000)
1997—XXXI, New Orleans: $1,200,000 ($1,717,000)
1998—XXXII, San Diego: $1,300,000 ($1,831,000)
1999—XXXIII, Miami: $1,600,000 ($2,204,000)
2000—XXXIV, Atlanta: $2,100,000 ($2,800,000)
2001—XXXV, Tampa: $2,050,000 ($2,658,000)
2002—XXXVI, New Orleans: $1,900,000 ($2,425,000)
2003—XXXVII, San Diego: $2,150,000 ($2,638,000)
2004—XXXVIII, Houston: $2,300,000 ($2,795,000)
2005—XXXIX, Jacksonville: $2,400,000 ($2,821,000)
2006—XL, Detroit: $2,500,000 ($2,847,000)
2007—XLI, Miami: $2,390,000 ($2,646,000)
2008—XLII, Glendale: $2,700,000 ($2,879,000)
2009—XLIII, Tampa: $3,200,000 ($3,424,000)
2010—XLIV, Miami: $2,970,000 ($3,127,000)
2011—XLV, Dallas: $3,100,000 ($3,164,000)
2012—XLVI, Indianapolis: $3,500,000

We can give the values for the first couple years a little less importance and think of them as reflective of growing pains. But looking at the early mid-70s, we see the 30 second buy leveling off around $500,000 (in current dollars) and then start a slow ascent, increasing by $100,000 or so every year until the mid-90s, where we see a steeper climb start to kick in (with plateaus or small decreases in recession years. Has the value of the Super Bowl TV commercial increased over time? Damn straight, by a factor of roughly 700% (or nearly 1,300% if you go back to Super Bowl “I”)

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Now most of us will be watching at home, but some people will be at the game. They will be the tiny faces you see, rapt, awaiting the reunion of Destiny’s Child.

So let’s pretend you are not just there for a single game, but instead are one of those types with the foresight and then the continuing commitment to have attended every single one of the Super Bowls, even the first NFL-AFL World Championship Game in 1967. In order to have done this, you will have had to have purchased a ticket, a succession of 46 of them.

About the tickets. Chances are, if you wake up next week and decide that you want to go to Super Bowl XLVIII in a year’s time, it will not be a slam dunk for you, unless you are very famous and very wealthy (or know somebody, duh). Tickets for the Super Bowl are allotted amongst the teams playing, the host team, the rest of the teams and the league. From the 1977 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the Player’s Association onwards, the allotments were based on percentages and instead of actual amounts of tickets. Under the current allotment, the host team gets five percent of the tickets, the two teams playing get 17.5% each, and the rest of the teams split the remainder up to 75% in the aggregate. The rest, and by far the biggest share of anyone, goes to the NFL for distribution to sponsors, vendors and the like.

So how do you get your own personal ticket? Well, some of the tickets allotted to the teams are earmarked for a portion of season ticket holders, so hopefully you are from a town whose team is going to the Big Show. And from the league’s 25%, they put a block of 500 pairs of tickets up for nation-wide lottery. So these are the tickets we’ll be talking about; those tickets that are designated for the fans, yet astronomically difficult to obtain.

As far as the costs go, there is the issue of the tiering of ticket prices based on field position, and the secondary markets (once known as scalpers, now known as StubHub, where you can most certainly find tickets to the Super Bowl, at a significant mark-up over the face value), but we are going for straight nostalgia—after all, it’s the Sport of Kings, better than diamond rings. (Football!). The Houston Chronicle has a nice slideshow (well, nice for a slideshow) of actual Super Bowl tickets, going all the way back. We’ll use that as a starter for research. Where multiple ticket prices are given, we opt for the cheapest. Historical prices are as follows, and again, converted prices in parentheses:

1967—I, Los Angeles: $6 ($41.24)
1968—II, Miami: $12 ($79.17)
1969—III, Miami: $12 ($75.07)
1970—IV, New Orleans: $15 ($88.76)
1971—V, Miami: $15 ($85.03)
1972—VI, New Orleans: $15 ($82.39)
1973—VII, Los Angeles: $15 ($77.57)
1974—VIII, Houston: $15 ($69.86)
1975—IX, New Orleans: $20 ($85.35)
1976—X, Miami: $20 ($80.70)
1977—XI, Pasadena: $20 ($75.77)
1978—XII, New Orleans: $30 ($105.64)
1979—XIII, Miami: $30 ($94.87)
1980—XIV Pasadena: $30 ($83.59)
1981—XV, New Orleans: $40 ($101.03)
1982—XVI, Pontiac: $40 ($95.17)
1983—XVII, Pasadena: $40 ($92.21)
1984—XVIII, Tampa: $60 ($132.59)
1985—XIX, Palo Alto: $60 ($128.03)
1986—XX, New Orleans: $75 ($157.11)
1987—XXI, Pasadena: $75 ($151.58)
1988—XXII, San Diego: $100 ($194.08)
1989—XXIII, Miami: $100 ($185.16)
1990—XXIV, New Orleans: $125 ($219.58)
1991—XXV, Tampa: $150 ($252.86)
1992—XXVI, Minneapolis: $150 ($245.47)
1993—XXVII, Pasadena: $175 ($278.06)
1994—XXVIII, Atlanta: $175 ($271.11)
1995—XXIX, Miami: $200 ($301.30)
1996—XXX, Tempe: $200 ($292.66)
1997—XXXI, New Orleans: $275 ($393.39)
1998—XXXII, San Diego: $275 ($387.35)
1999—XXXIII, Miami: $325 ($447.89)
2000—XXXIV, Atlanta: $325 ($433.32)
2001—XXXV, Tampa: $325 ($421.33)
2002—XXXVI, New Orleans: $400 ($510.49)
2003—XXXVII, San Diego: $400 ($499.12)
2004—XXXVIII, Houston: $500 ($607.71)
2005—XXXIX, Jacksonville: $500 ($587.80)
2006—XL, Detroit: $600 ($683.32)
2007—XLI, Miami: $600 ($644.39)
2008—XLII, Glendale: $700 ($746.46)
2009—XLIII, Tampa: $500 ($535.09)
2010—XLIV, Miami: $500 ($526.46)
2011—XLV, Dallas: $600 ($612.42)
2012—XLVI, Indianapolis: $600

Again, we’re looking at a distinct incline in the real price over time, a procession not dissimilar to that of the Super Bowl commercials. Ignoring the first game (again, as a debut/outlier), the ticket starts out at roughly a hundred bucks (in current dollars) a pop, for the next twenty years, the price slowly double. After that, it’s a sharper but more volatile climb, hitting an all time high in 2008 and finally settling in to the current price point of $600. That is not cheap—another 700% jump, or 1,400% if you do go back to 1967.

From the data, it’s pretty clear that the increasing popularity of football, as it slowly equaled and then surpassed the popularity of that most American of American games, baseball, is reflected in the inflation of associated costs. In the case of the television spots, you can throw in two other factors, first the growth in size and sophistication of the advertising industry over the past forty years, and second, and probably more importantly, the splintering of the television industry. At the time of the first game in 1967, there were three (or two and a half, some would say) national television networks on which to advertise. Additionally, there were no home-use devices that could record television, let alone skip the commercials. As the television industry developed into thousands of channels, and a decreasing audience willing to watch it in real time, the value of advertising on the Super Bowl increased, in terms of the audience it would draw, and in terms of the actual amount of that audience that would sit willingly through the commercials. Three and a half million dollars seems like a lot, but the business sections of the newspapers aren’t exactly filled with complaints about exorbitance.

And in terms of the ticket prices? In this case, we are talking about a commodity of nearly unimaginable scarcity. A hundred thousand tickets may seem like a lot, but it’s not even a measurable percentage of the NFL’s viewership, a two-thirds of Americans. The NFL could charge whatever they wanted for tickets to the Super Bowl and buyers would emerge. Maybe that bottom-tier price, even though it’s risen to a ridiculous $600, is some arbitrary level set to give the appearance of not being unseemly, of doing Joe Sixpack a solid, giving him a chance to see the game with the bigwigs.

Obviously, the NFL is in some pretty solid shape, regardless of the clouds looming on the horizon. On Sunday, the vast majority of us will neither be in attendance nor have a commercial airing, which will in no way stop us from watching.


Previously in series: How Much More Does A Steak Dinner Cost Today?


Brent Cox is all over the Internet.