Why Apple, Uber are betting on Super Bowl sponsorship

Daniel Roberts
January 14, 2016

Apple and the NFL are two mega brand names you don’t often hear in the same sentence. Typically, they have little to do with each other, except perhaps for the iconic Super Bowl ad Apple ran in 1984.

But this year marks the first time that Apple is a sponsor of the Super Bowl—well, the host committee.

Most fans may not have ever heard of the Super Bowl Host Committee. And many likely assume that the NFL handles the arrangements for its own championship game, including financing it. In fact, neither is true.

The league assembles a new host committee for each Super Bowl, nearly three years in advance. It assembled the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee in September 2013, after San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium won the bid to host it that May. To run the committee, it taps someone based in the host city, and the committee functions like an independent startup.

The CEO of this year’s committee is Keith Bruce, a sports-marketing veteran based in the Bay Area who has worked on marketing for past Olympic Games, FIFA World Cups, and the NCAA Final Four tournament. Bruce was selected by Daniel Lurie, whom San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee had chosen to run the bid process.

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The host committee manages everything from public transportation to logistics for the game to financing it. And this year’s host committee received no money from the state government or local tourism authority, as is typically the case for host committees. Instead, Super Bowl 50 was privately financed with money from blue-chip corporate sponsors. It has raised $50 million to date from sponsors including Apple (AAPL) and Uber, though the committee won’t disclose how much each individual sponsor gave.

Why would Apple want to sponsor the Super Bowl Host Committee rather than, say, the Super Bowl itself? After all, Super Bowl sponsors get signage around the stadium, the chance to bring corporate guests who in turn schmooze with sales and marketing executives, and activation opportunities before the game, like Super Bowl City, presented by Verizon, or The City Stage, presented by Levi’s—designated areas that will be open to the public in the Bay Area during the weekend of the game.

In their marketing of the game, official sponsors of the Super Bowl can use the NFL’s official Super Bowl mark. Sponsors of the Host Committee don’t—they can only use the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee mark (which shows the Golden Gate Bridge and a football), and only in the state of California.

If you ask Bruce, Apple doesn’t much care about the rights to the NFL logo anyway. “Their opinion,” he says, “is that the NFL should pay them for the right to use their mark. Because their mark is more valuable than the NFL shield.”

That’s probably true If you showed the iconic apple to people around the world, and then showed them the NFL shield, both are instantly recognizable. But the latter is more respected.

So why get in the game now? Apple won’t say; a spokesperson confirmed the sponsorship, but declined to comment. And Super Bowl fans surely don't care—if they're even aware of—who's sponsoring the host committee (it's all about the commercials, of course). Bruce figures the appeal for Apple is threefold: local Silicon Valley cachet; a suite at the game; and the charity aspect.

Neither of those last two reasons sounds so compelling. A suite at the game is a chance for hospitality -- the company can fill it with bigwig executives or invite friends of the company it wants to woo. It’s a nice-to-have, not a need. The charity aspect is The 50 Fund, the committee’s charitable arm—25% of all money the committee raises from sponsorships goes to the charity. Philanthropy is lovely, but still not sexy.

Silicon Valley cachet—think of it as brownie points with local sports fans—may be the true draw. View this year’s Super Bowl as the Tech Bowl: Levi’s Stadium was praised for its high-tech capabilities when it opened two seasons ago, is a short 15-minute drive from Apple’s campus in Cupertino, and the Host Committee even has an advisory board that boasts tech luminaries like Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell, SoftBank CEO Nikesh Arora, and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer.

“Our sponsors will get a lot of attention in the Bay Area because they stepped up early to be a part of this,” says Bruce. “Apple was the very first company of all our sponsors to step up. And the reason they did that is because they realized that it was important to Silicon Valley. It was during a bit of a transition time from Steve [Jobs] to Tim [Cook], and they told us, ‘This is the right thing to do. We're building a mega campus that will be a stone's throw from the stadium.’ They have no interest in the marketing rights, they have no interest in using our logo. But they’re promoting the partnership a lot internally to their employees.”

In the Super Bowl's backyard

It sounds like Uber had the same motivation. Amy Hoffman, head of business development and experiential marketing at the ride-sharing company, says, “Super Bowl 50 is in our backyard, and we want to make sure fans from our city and those that come from around the world can easily get to the action and have the best Super Bowl experience possible.”

Uber is not completely new to sports marketing, having launched partnerships with the NFL Players’ Association, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and in the NBA, the Sacramento Kings.

For the committee, getting Uber on board was also a strategic effort to get ahead of a perennial problem at the Super Bowl -- brutal traffic on the roads to the stadium. “Transportation is always a bugaboo for any organizing committee,” says Bruce, “which is why we did a deal with Uber. We'll have a separate, dedicated parking area for Uber drop and pick-up. So we're making it easy. We also have a very good public transport system, which is something you didn't see in Phoenix or a lot of host cities.” Bruce estimates that around 12,000 of the 70,000 people attending the game will opt for the train.

The rules of sponsorship for the big game itself, and for the committee, are complicated.

Some of the sponsors overlap: SAP, Verizon, Visa, and Anheuser-Busch are all sponsors of both Super Bowl 50 and the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee. The committee cannot have more than one sponsor in the same industry: Direct competitors like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for example, can’t both be on board. But there’s a big exception: Every host region gets one industry that is exempt from that rule. It’s whatever industry is busiest in the local market. When the Super Bowl was in New York's Meadowlands Stadium, it was financial services. In Houston, it will be oil-and-gas companies. San Francisco? You can easily guess the exception: tech. Thus Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOGL) are also partners of the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, along with Apple and HP (HPQ).

It is unheard of to see those four names all involved as partners on a single sports event. And while their sponsorships come with the asterisk that they're partners of the committee and not the game itself, Bruce acknowledges, “It's not completely wrong to think of Apple as a sponsor of the game. They’re involved. They're supporting the host committee, whose job is to fund the game, manage the transportation, and deliver a massive fan experience.”

Apple executives are counting on that massive experience. There has also been speculation that the company might run an ad during this year's game; it would only be Apple's fourth Super Bowl ad ever.

As for Bruce and the 35 full-time employees on the committee who have been in the strange position of holding a job for the past three years that always had a distinct expiration date, he says they’re just hoping for a good matchup of teams. “It would be great to host a game that has natural gravitas—either [a team] with a rich tradition of being in the Super Bowl, or someone who is a complete underdog.”

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Read more:

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