During the decades I was involved in the radio and TV aspect of Catholic communications, I wondered aloud why the church didn’t invest in a Super Bowl spot or two and use that time for evangelization. This was pre-2002 — prior to the revelation of the sex abuse scandal — when the market might have been more receptive to that message.
My contemporaries in that field didn’t see it that way, nor did the Catholic decision makers, i.e., members of the U.S. bishops’ communications committee. They did, however, believe there was value in having their own TV network — the Catholic Television Network of America. It died $10 million and 13 painful years after it was launched, and without having made a positive impact on the Catholic community. An idea with merit, but poorly executed.
Since the Super Bowl is still a good place to evangelize, I’m glad Focus on the Family is investing $2.5 million for a spot that is expected to have a pro-life, pro-family message. The spot will feature Pam Tebow, who reportedly will relate how she ignored doctors’ advice and refused to abort the baby she was carrying in 1987. The healthy boy to whom she gave birth is Tim, a Heisman Trophy winner and leader on two-time national football champion University of Florida.
The purchase of time and featuring the Tebows has provided fodder for sports writers and the sports talkradio crowd. Most of their reaction has been negative, e.g., “I don’t want to be preached to by some athlete” and “Keep your religion off the playing field.”
One comment that has me shaking my head comes from a Jan. 26 article on MSNBC.com. Jehmu Greene, president of the Women’s Media Center, stated, “An ad that uses sports to divide rather than to unite has no place in the biggest national sports event of the year – an event designed to bring Americans together.”
I don’t recall the intent of the Super Bowl ever being to “bring Americans together.” We might gather for food and fellowship because of it, but that certainly isn’t the reason the late Pete Rozelle and Company conceived the game. It is played because it generates money for the NFL, its teams’ owners and players, the TV network that airs it, and the community that hosts it. Nowhere in Super Bowl history do we read that someone said, “Let’s play a game at the end of the season that will bring Americans together.”
As the game evolved from its AFL-NFL Championship roots, some people realized that there would be a lot of interest, i.e., viewers, and that businesses would pay a lot of money to advertise their products and services — and even ideas — to those viewers.
Greene’s concern about an ad that divides has no foundation. The game itself has had a history of division. Fans cheer for one team or the other. Bookmakers offer odds that have people betting in a variety of divisive ways. Commercials divide among competitors: Burger King and McDonald’s. Coke and Pepsi. Budweiser and Miller – the latter of which personified division with its “Tastes Great, Less Filling” campaign.
Since the Super Bowl is the biggest TV marketplace of the year, and since Focus on the Family could pony up the $2.5 million to enter that marketplace, the Tebow ad has a right to be there. The Tebows’ message is certain to touch some of the game’s 95 million potential viewers, and it might plant some seeds that will get others thinking about the sanctity of life and the value of family. Airing a message to the largest possible audience is what the business community calls marketing. Airing a pro-life, pro-family message to the largest possible audience is what Christians call evangelization.