Thirty years ago last month, the Super Bowl halftime show changed forever.
In Minneapolis’ Metrodome, a pair of Olympic ice skaters in multicolored outerwear welcomed 80 million viewers to what was billed as “The 1992 Super Bowl XXVI Halftime Spectacular, Winter Magic!” They were joined by a sizable orchestra, the University of Minnesota’s marching band, child rappers, and two inflated snowmen that seem to wobble with shame during a strange medley of snow-themed songs. They were all ditched by countless viewers.
By the time the entire crew punctuated the show with an exuberant “Come feel the cold!” millions had switched over to Fox’s counter programmed episode of In Living Color. Many didn’t come back, as the broadcast finished with the second lowest rating among Super Bowls over a 20-year span. Poof!
For the 1993 Super Bowl, the NFL booked Michael Jackson.
Only the business behemoth that is the NFL could turn what had been the single weakness of a four-hour national event into one of its greatest strengths. In recent years, the halftime show’s TV rating has regularly topped the actual game’s as pop’s biggest stars have brought in new audiences. Online, they’ve dominated conversation, generating memes (like 2015’s “left shark” moment) that take on a life of their own. Last year’s performance by The Weeknd has racked up 44 million views on YouTube; the NFL’s highlights of the Buccaneers’ win were viewed a mere 11 million times.
The halftime show’s footprint has even extended beyond, well, halftime. Since buying the sponsorship rights a decade ago, Pepsi has turned a 12-minute show into a 12-month tentpole with physical and digital activations. As IEG global managing director Peter Laatz described the concert, “It’s a spectacle inside of another spectacle.”
Writers often divide Super Bowl halftime performances into the pre- and post-Michael Jackson eras, but that’s not quite right. Even after MJ’s 1993 stunner, the shows struggled to find a consistent vibe, bouncing between blues, country and salsa. After 2004’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” forced then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to testify before Congress, the league settled into a long stretch of classic rock. Sponsors—from Oscar Mayer to E-Trade—came and went.
Then Pepsi signed a longterm deal back in 2012. It has seemingly slowly increased the amount of input it has in planning and marketing the event since then. Many of the Super Bowl’s recent A-list guests have come from Pepsi’s Rolodex of previous spokespeople, as the NFL continues attracting top acts without paying a significant appearance fee—or any appearance fee at all.
Pepsi’s September announcement that five more superstars—Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, and Kendrick Lamar—will somehow share the stage generated 50,000 hashtagged tweets in a day. Their movie-esque show trailer, dropped earlier in the NFL playoffs, garnered nearly 70,000. Unfortunately, there was no “Winter Magic!” callback in the spot.
According to data from social audience measurement platform Zoomph, two-thirds of the 50 million social impressions for the Pepsi trailer came from outside the U.S. That type of international stage has helped to attract the performers since the days of Michael Jackson. “You’re telling me that this show is going live to all those places where I’ll never do a concert?” he reportedly asked when offered the gig. “I’m in.”
Another draw, ITB Worldwide SVP Michael Jacobson explained, is the supersized canvas artists now get to work with when they sign up for the gig. The Weeknd reportedly spent an additional $7 million to make his performance even more cinematic last year, while artists like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have used behind-the-scenes footage to fuel documentaries.
Over the last two years, Pepsi has forgone traditional Super Bowl advertising spots to focus on its show. This year, it even launched an entire halftime show mobile app. “With a [consumer packaged goods] company like Pepsi, you’re using it to sell into retail, you’re using it to entertain and host key stakeholders, distributors, etc…,” said Todd Fischer, GMR Marketing SVP, global sports and entertainment consulting. “They’re using it 360 through their entire marketing and sales pipeline.”
Other brands have tried to recreate the NFL’s magical blend of sports and entertainment (remember Monday Night Football’s Genesis halftime show?), but the Super Bowl intermission still stands alone. It has gone from filler to an event in itself.
“[The halftime show] really became a big asset when Pepsi got involved,” former NFL exec and current Tennis Channel VP of content Lawrence Randall said. Now the question is just how big that asset really is.
The NFL is reportedly considering selling the halftime sponsorship separately rather than wrapping it into a larger partnership this offseason. Experts said the halftime rights could fetch anywhere from $20 million to $40 million a year. Before Pepsi took over, Bridgestone paid roughly $10 million for those rights.
Plenty of insiders expect Pepsi to hold onto the rights, given the success they’ve had, but with new players like crypto exchanges, betting companies, and tech titans looking to grow, the beverage company could find the price simply too rich and opt to focus on other elements of its NFL relationship.
“I could see an FTX or Crypto.com coming in and doubling the spend,” Laatz said. “Pepsi is also a brand that is always doing new things, right? And they may challenge themselves to do something different.”
If someone new does inherit the stage for 2023, they’ll have the benefit of building off what Pepsi has helped establish. No need to call any underaged rhymesters in for auditions.
“I think you’re going to have at least several years that artists are going to still want to do it,” NextUp Partners managing partner Joe Dupriest said, “because of the platform that has been built at this point—and Pepsi and the NFL built it together.”