As Super Bowl disasters go, this fell somewhere between a crazed Bruce Dern plotting to ram the Goodyear Blimp into the crowd at the Orange Bowl in the film Black Sunday and the lights in the Superdome going out for 34 minutes in the third quarter of the 2013 Ravens-49ers game. But a little quick thinking (and the added incentive of a sporty necktie) allowed CBS to avoid a commercial calamity during its broadcast of Super Bowl XXVI.
It’s Jan. 26, 1992, just about midway through the first quarter of the Washington-Buffalo game. 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 festooned with little footballs. As the global sports marketing capo for Anheuser-Busch, Ponturo is CBS’ biggest Super Bowl client, and he’s looking forward to seeing if Jim Kelly and Buffalo’s high-octane, no-huddle offense can keep pace with a Joe Gibbs squad that’s been absolutely 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, Ponturo suddenly spots a colleague hustling his way up the aisle, a brick-sized cell phone thrust out in front of him like a radioactive diaper. “Oh, this can’t be good,” Ponturo says, and although the phone is still a few yards away from his ears, Abruzzese can already hear the crackle of distinctly unhappy noises leaking from the device.
Ponturo fields the call, and it’s Triple Sticks on the line, calling from his sprawling Florida compound. August Busch III has torn himself away from his own Super Bowl party to inquire as to why the second of eight commercials he’s paid good money to air during the Big Game just sputtered out halfway through its allotted 30-second run. Busch is particularly fond of this never-before-seen animated spot, which features magazine cutouts of old-timey leather-helmeted gridders playing football on a bar with a crumpled Budweiser bottle cap. But just before the 2-D squad of Red Grange lookalikes crash into a wall of well-armored contemporary players, the picture goes black.
The ambient temperature of this particular executive suite in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome drops a few degrees as the beer baron continues making sounds that are largely consistent with fury and general dissatisfaction. As if the disruption of an $850,000 Budweiser commercial isn’t vexing enough, The Third is even more incensed by the doomed ad’s placement. According to Busch, the truncated spot aired immediately after an in-house teaser for CBS’s presentation of the upcoming Daytona 500. It probably goes without saying that you never want a paid Super Bowl spot to follow a network promo, especially when said ad was meant to appear first in the break.
Also worth noting: A-B has spent around $16 million, in 2023 dollars, to stamp its brand all over a game that is being watched by 79.6 million people. Ponturo is the guy who, just a few years before, established what would turn out to be a 33-year run of category exclusivity for Budweiser. So 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 MIA flipping the bird to the whole of America bad.
The way Ponturo’s facial features are assembling themselves 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 associate beer vendor. (These sort of things happened whenever Busch got his dander up. Just a year before, during a dispute over a grounded Budweiser blimp—long story—Triple Sticks rained so much hellfire down on the ABC brass that it cost a senior executive his job.) Tony Ponturo likes his job. He would just as soon not walk around the 300 level hooting, “Beer here.”
As such, he 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, I’ll step aside and let Joe Abruzzese finish the story. He tells it better.
“I go down to the production trucks with Tony, and the guy says, ‘I showed the commercial, and it was fine on our end,’” Abruzzese recalls. “So I call New York, they tell me it went out clean. Chicago, the same. L.A.? ‘Fine.’ Detroit: ‘Looked good from where I’m sitting.’ Etcetera, etcetera. Now all I can do is ask the executive producer if he can do me a tremendous favor and can he please re-run this commercial. I tell him, ‘If you can’t, I understand, because it’s against 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.’
“In spite of everything we’re hearing from New York and all the other big markets, the EP agrees to re-run the spot,” Abruzzese continues. “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 make-good spot. Tony goes, ‘That’s fabulous, you just saved everything!’ and then he unknots the tie and hands it over. Then they all flew back to St. Louis at halftime. Lousy game; they didn’t miss much.”
Abruzzese’s unflappable approach to problem-solving went a long way toward making August Busch III and everyone else at A-B quite 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 Budweiser 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, from Florida all the way to L.A.,” Abruzzese says. “It was a satellite glitch. 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, before the next upfront we wound up doing a three-year deal on a cocktail napkin. We were sitting at the bar at 21 and: Bing, bang, done. 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, that 2001 game (Super Bowl XXXV) would prove to be Abruzzese’s last Super Sunday hurrah. In an unprecedented move, he left the CBS citadel to join the cable upstart Discovery Networks as the head of its ad sales operation in 2002.
Ponturo brought an awful lot of Budweiser business to Discovery once Abruzzese had settled in. After a 26-year run, he retired from A-B in 2008 and went on to undertake a second career as a Broadway impresario, producing Lombardi, a play based on a week in the life of the man who steered the Packers to the NFL’s first two Super Bowl titles. Lombardi closed after 30 previews and nearly 250 performances. Ponturo went on to win two Tony Awards and is a consultant. He was one of the hundreds of friends, family members, colleagues and other assorted well-wishers who attended Abruzzese’s 2016 retirement celebration.
“Trust is the most important asset a salesperson can ever have,” Abruzzese says. “You earn it by your actions. Err in favor of the client, and you’ll never disappoint them.”