NFL executives fumbled ball at Super Bowl festivities

Super Bowl XLV was held at Cowboys Stadium. (David J. Phillip/AP PHoto)

THE NFL DOESN'T like to be embarrassed. Especially when the whole world is watching. On those rare occasions when it happens, you can usually count on finding a body or two floating in the river.

Seven years ago, Janet Jackson had her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston when her outfit came undone and briefly exposed one of her breasts.

Less than 2 months after the world got a quick glimpse of Janet's left nipple, John Collins, the NFL's top marketing executive and the man who signed off on allowing MTV to manage the SB XXXVIII halftime show, resigned, which is the word the corporate world uses for beheadings. As further punishment, Collins was hired as president of the Cleveland Browns about a month later. He's now in witness protection.

To make a long story short, you can bet your DeSean Jackson Fathead that somebody, and maybe more than one somebody, is going to be thrown under the bus for the debacle in Texas 2 weeks ago.

If you're looking for likely fall guys, you can start with Eric Grubman, the league's executive vice president/business ventures, and Frank Supovitz, the league's senior vice president/events, who essentially were in charge of Super Bowl XLV, if you don't count the guy who owns the stadium they played the game in, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. And Jerry's not going anywhere, except into seclusion. If Grubman's and Supovitz' names both still are on the league's staff directory in 4 months, I'll be shocked.

Super Bowl XLV was supposed to be Jones' shining moment. Instead, it turned into his Ishtar.

"I saw him Thursday night [at a dinner Jones and his wife Gene hosted for fellow NFL owners in a private club at Cowboys Stadium] and he looked ashen white,'' one league executive said. "Then I saw him again at the [pregame] tailgate party and he looked even whiter."

The fiasco over those 1,200 temporary seats clearly was the biggest and most highly publicized screw up of Super Bowl week, if you don't count the Dallas-Fort Worth area's low-sodium approach to melting ice. But it hardly was the only one.

While the league was scurrying to deal with relocating its displaced customers inside the building on Super Bowl Sunday, including taking 800 tickets away from NFL employees and their families, things were going even worse outside the stadium at the tailgate party.

The NFL Tailgate Party is one of the premier events of Super Bowl week. It's a tougher ticket to get than the game ticket. The invited guests include A-list celebrities like Harrison Ford and Jennifer Aniston, as well as league owners and Super Bowl sponsors. But with the league focused on straightening out the seating snafu, the tailgate party turned into chaos.

According to league sources, many sponsors were forced to wait in line for as long as 2 1/2 hours to get into the tailgate party and were not pleased with the shabby way they were treated.

"It was a disaster from the start, with no signs or people directing people to the [VIP] parking lot or the drop-off area," a source close to the situation said. "The seating issue became all encompassing. Anyone in an authoritative position was brought inside to help calm people who lost their seats. That took people away from outside the perimeter.

"In the past, you couldn't miss where you were supposed to go. You'd get off a bus or out of your limo and there would be someone there to tell you, 'Tailgate party right this way.' This one, no one had any idea where to go. VIPs and sponsors were being funneled in [to the stadium] with regular fans."

The problems at the tailgate party could turn out to be even more costly to the league than Seatgate. According to a league source, some of the companies whose executives had to wait in those long lines, including FedEx and Castrol Motor Oil, have threatened to pull out as Super Bowl sponsors next year. The league has spent much of the last 2 weeks running damage control with those companies.

Sponsors weren't the only ones ticked off at the way they were treated in Dallas. So were league owners and executives.

Part of Jerry Jones' bid to bring the Super Bowl to Dallas was a package of perks for the league's owners, including gift certificates to Dallas-area stores, along with several hours of free use of a limousine.

Well, when New Orleans Saints owner/executive vice president Rita Benson LeBlanc, who is the granddaughter of majority owner Tom Benson, and the heir to the team, called from the airport for her free limo, she was informed that the perks were only for each team's principal owner. In other words, only grandpa. According to a source, Tom Benson was furious with Jones.

Many league executives also were upset when they and their families were told at the last minute that they had to give up their Super Bowl seats and watch the game on television in a tent outside the stadium as the league gave their seats to many of the displaced 1,200. According to a league source, the family of NFL assistant director of operations Merton Hanks already was in their seats when Hanks, a Dallas native who won a Super Bowl while playing with the San Francisco 49ers, was told they would have to move.

Then there was the awful sound quality during the Black Eyed Peas' halftime performance. Once upon a time, the league spared no expense when it came to staging its biggest game. Since the departure of the league's longtime special events coordinator, Jim Steeg, 7 years ago, though, it has dramatically cut costs.

Do you think it was an accident that they decided to use the TCU marching band, which was able to bus in from nearby Fort Worth at its own expense, as part of the pregame entertainment?

They have cut way back on sound production, dropping one of the nation's top sound production companies, Best Audio, several years ago, in favor of less expensive outfits.

"My favorite quote is the most expensive lunch is a free meal," said Best Audio founder Larry Estrin. "The NFL decided a while ago to change the way they do things completely."

"They're not bringing in anywhere near the [audio] equipment they used to," a league source said. "They use maybe 40 percent of what they used to. Does that mean it won't sound as good as it used to? Absolutely. Especially when you're doing it in one of the biggest venues they've ever used."

Maybe next time, they can use some of the money they saved on sound quality and pregame entertainment to buy off a building inspector. *

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