Should Musicians Pay to Play the Super Bowl Halftime Show?

Weighing the financial upsides of exposure against the stigma of desperate self-promotion
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Jim Young/Reuters

Even when it comes to relatively small expenses, the National Football League’s zeal for profit-maximization knows few limits. The league responded last week to a lawsuit, brought by Caitlin Y. and Jenny C., two Oakland Raiders cheerleaders who are contesting their sub-minimum wages. In arguing that, essentially, state labor laws don’t apply to football, the league has shown that it is willing to perform some serious jurisprudential jujitsu to protect its right to pay some of its employees less than $5 per hour.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum of financial magnitude, the league is rumored to be combing through the contracts of a higher-profile gang: The Wall Street Journal reported last week that league representatives have, for the first time, asked at least one potential Super Bowl halftime-show performer to pay for the opportunity. 

The NFL’s impulse to charge halftime-show performers is only natural, even if it may strike some as money-grubbing. This year, the Super Bowl’s halftime show averaged more viewers than the game itself, and the performance is a perennial lock for the top spot on Billboard’s annual “Maximum Exposure” list, which qualitatively compiles the top 10 promotional platforms for music. Bruno Mars, one of this year’s performers, saw a significant increase in album sales after performing at the Super Bowl for fewer than 15 minutes.

One might even say the league looks charitable for having given away the halftime performance for free all these years. “One way to think about it is to remember that companies pay $4 million for 30 seconds of exposure during the Super Bowl,” says Daniel Lin, an economist at American University. “It doesn’t seem unreasonable that musicians would pay for something that others are already willing to pay millions for.” Bear in mind, though, that one of the reasons the game's ad prices are so high is the popularity of the halftime performance.

Neal Burns, who teaches advertising at the University of Texas, also sees the NFL’s behavior as understandable, saying that the league is just one more brand that’s starting to act like a publisher. “Brands have begun, I think, to function as highly specialized media organizations,” he says. They can’t be blamed for trying to rent out a highly-valuable content platform.

The math looks a lot different from the artist’s perspective, though. “Since the Super Bowl halftime show only uses top acts who already earn millions from touring revenues,” says NYU music-business professor Sam Howard-Spink, “the value proposition is tenuous at best.” Once a musician is famous enough to play at the Super Bowl halftime show, in other words, the sales coming from that marginal amount of exposure probably aren't worth very much.

William Greene, an economist at NYU, tends to agree. He says that the value of a halftime slot would be more valuable to lesser-known acts, and that the stigma of paying to play might be enough to deter a big-name musician, like Beyoncé. “Imagine the blowback if it got out that she had paid to be the one to do the halftime show,” Greene says. “Part of her wild appeal stems from the fact that she is so highly paid.” Agreeing to provide the NFL kickback for the privilege of doing something that you’re usually paid for would probably appear desperate.

Greene is convinced the arrangement won’t pan out, but he did make a comment that made me think that the pay-to-play idea isn't such a sinister one. When I referred to the Super Bowl as “already heavily commercialized,” Green objected to my characterization—on the grounds that I was understating the issue. “The entire thing is a commercial exercise…the ‘pure sport’ idea is a myth,” he says.

If this idea doesn’t work out, at least the NFL is saving all that money on those cheerleaders.

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Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling StoneForbes, and Salon.

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