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Super Bowl: From NBC To NFL, Who’s Under Most Pressure on Game Day?

Analysis: Here's your guide to who and what to watch with an eye toward the business of the Big Game

The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks aren’t the only entities under pressure to deliver when Super Bowl XLIX kicks off this Sunday from Phoenix.

With 30-second spots in NBC’s broadcast of the game going for around $4.5 million (and the bargain price of $4.4 million for those who bought multiple spots), the stakes are high for everyone and anyone associated with the contest. NBC likely feels compelled to deliver outsize ratings and likely hopes the Super Bowl will, as it has four times in the last five years, break the record for the most-watched event on TV. The National Football League will hope a topnotch event can partly erase from fans’ minds recent imbroglios involving its players’ treatment of women and the way it has handled new research showing the game injures the people who take it on to the field. And marketers investing in the event will be hard-pressed to demonstrate their million-dollar, celebrity-stuffed ads can do more than generate posts, likes, retweets and viral chatter, and instead prove the commercials actually generated money from sales.

And then there are the ancillary activities: The parties, the pre-show interviews, the guerrilla stunts and the post-game hoopla. None of it comes for free, and all of it is supposed to produce results, whether they come in the form of ratings, image improvement or cold, hard cash.

Who’s got a fire under their feet? Below, Variety considers the parties most likely to feel the Arizona heat this weekend:

NBCUniversal: Can this media giant wring every drop of promotion from its big broadcast while proving to advertisers the game is worth every cent spent to take part?

No single company may have more at stake than the one broadcasting the event. The Peacock doesn’t just need mammoth ratings to please the sponsors forking over a record price per 30-second commercial. It needs them to generate attention for its own business. The Super Bowl may play a key role in locking up support for “The Blacklist,” which is making a big jump from its comfortable Monday slot after “The Voice” to Thursdays, a day on which NBC’s ability to field a winning team of programs has been in question. NBCU will also promote “Today,”  a variety program featuring Neil Patrick Harris slated to debut in the fall, and the debut of a new scripted series called “The Royals” on E!

But let’s get back to those the advertisers. They keep you in business. NBC’s 2015 Super Bowl broadcast will feature a whopping number of freshman sponsors – 15! – who are joining the game’s ad roster as more established marketers like General Motors, Audi and Hyundai leave the field. Can a fleet of rookies, less experienced in the ins and outs of TV advertising and more prone to making horrible gaffes with tone-deaf commercials (Groupon, Just for Feet), help the network maintain the blue-chip experience its supporters expect from the telecast?

The National Football League: Can a new chief marketing officer craft an image of an NFL that’s more inclusive and relevant to younger viewers?

Football has long been America’s game. But recent scandals have shaken the organization to its core, especially as the National Basketball League and Major League Baseball, both of whom have new people at the helm, appear more willing to crack down on festering issues like racism and drug abuse. What’s more, a recent study of Nielsen data by Variety found younger viewers have been gradually walking away from the game. Those dynamics provide ample reason why the league will use the Super Bowl to run a public-service announcement weighing in against domestic violence, an issue that has plagued the organization in recent months.

Dawn Hudson, a longtime PepsiCo marketing executive who has recently come on board as the NFL’s chief marketing officer, will have a chance to strike a new chord for the league this year, just as its season comes to an end and the nation turns its attention to efforts from sports-league rivals.

GoDaddy: Has the entrepreneurial Web-services advertiser overplayed its hand after years in the game?

GoDaddy would likely not be a household name without the off-kilter commercials it runs in the Super Bowl every year. Some have skirted the bounds of good taste, and the company has taken pains in recent years to portray itself as a maturing entity that knows how to play in a world festooned with Anheuser-Busch InBevs and PepsiCos. GoDaddy has hired dynamic ad agencies like Deutsch and Barton F. Graf 9000 for recent efforts rather than mounting efforts cobbled together inhouse.

Even so, GoDaddy’s debut of an ad in which a puppy is jostled out of a pick up truck, and then sent on an arduous journey back home only to find he’s being sold over the Web, seems like a tone-deaf maneuver. On Madison Avenue, puppies and babies are used to entice, not offend or shock, and after previewing the spot on “Today,” GoDaddy thought twice about it and yanked it from YouTube. The idea that GoDaddy thought putting a canine through the paces of movie heroes like Indiana Jones or John McClane only to end up in a moment of crushing defeat would win hearts and minds is a little hard to swallow, and the company has a reputation for publicity stunts. Whatever GoDaddy runs this Sunday will have to be pretty good to make a mark.

McDonald’s: Can the ubiquitous fast-feeder devise a new recipe to get people to return to its Golden Arches?

It’s hard to envision an American landscape without a Mickey D’s tucked somewhere alongside a highway exit or strip mall. Yet McDonald’s has faced sales problems for months. The issue has become so intractable that the Big Mac emporium jettisoned its chief executive earlier this week in favor of someone else in the ranks who might have new ideas.

Yet this venerable American business icon is taking on something a lot more challenging than the price of a Quarter Pounder. The American diet is in flux. We’re drinking more water and less soda. We’re interested in quinoa, protein bars and lots of salad.

On Sunday, McDonald’s will introduce a new item to its menu: manufactured sentiment. The company will unveil a new, short-term initiative aimed at bolstering its “I’m lovin’ it” slogan under which certain customers will be asked to take part in a demonstration of love — calling one’s mother, hugging one’s son, giving a fist bump to the crew manager.

It’s clever and intriguing and, yes, a little mawkish. And it reminds one of Denny’s recent Super Bowl efforts in 2009 and 2010 that told Super Bowl viewers of free-food giveaways. Will this idea from ad agency Leo Burnett serve as enough of a rewrite of McDonald’s menu to get people thinking anew about getting a Filet-O-Fish?

Coca-Cola, Dove, Procter & Gamble and others:  Can “nanny-state” advertising win over hearts and minds during what it supposed to be one of the most fun get-togethers of the year?

Viewers accustomed to downing buffalo wings, beer and chips may find Madison Avenue serving up something else this year during Super Bowl XLIX: the advertising equivalent of a spinach-kale smoothie.

Some ads that are supposed to evoke fun and surprise will instead embrace a little finger-wagging. Coca-Cola is set to weigh in against online bullying. Procter & Gamble is expected to fight gender stereotypes. The NFL will tackle domestic violence. And several marketers, like Unilever’s Dove, will explore what it means to be a father.

Let’s not dismiss the plausibility of these efforts. These are companies, after all, whose main job it is to, essentially, sell ice to Eskimos. They are trying to get viewers to go out and put down hard-earned cash for something they don’t necessarily want or need. Coca-Cola, in particular, has been quite skilled in recent years, running ads that try to sell soda even as they warn drinking too much of it can make you fat. And last year, it produced a beautiful commercial featuring a seven-language rendition of “America the Beautiful” that gave much more than a nod to diversity even as it sparked hate comments from viewers who felt the song should be sung only in English.

Younger consumers have shown a predilection for getting more involved with big issues – the environment, hate crimes and hate speech, global sustainability – that directly affect this new generation. So it’s little wonder some marketers are putting on a suit and tie instead of a football jersey and beer goggles. Whether these serious subjects replace the usual parade of jokes designed for drunks watching at the back of the bar remains to be seen.

Savannah Guthrie and “Today”: Newly signed to a contract extension, can one of America’s most-viewed morning personalities carry the day for NBC News during an interview with the president?

Interviewing the U.S. president – a time-honored element of the coverage leading up to any Super Bowl – is always a delicate matter. For NBC, it’s a chance to promote “Today,” the onetime leader among the cereal-and-toast crowd that has stumbled in its efforts to outmatch ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Matt Lauer has handled these duties twice in the recent past, but now Guthrie, who recently agreed to her extend her tenure with the show, will take on the responsibility. She’s no slouch –a former White House correspondent and MSNBC host. On Sunday, however, she’ll have to parry with the nation’s chief executive while also convincing a restless pre-game audience waiting for the main event to consider “Today” once the Super Bowl hoopla fades from NBC’s air.

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