Image: Warner interviewed
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
Quarterback Kurt Warner, his Arizona Cardinals, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the center of attention on Sunday.
updated 1/31/2009 10:55:32 AM ET 2009-01-31T15:55:32

Recession is gripping the country, but the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl — that annual holiday from reality that grips the country every year. And companies looking to reach the single biggest mass audience of the year will still spend to do it.

This year's broadcaster, NBC, is getting $3 million for a 30-second spot, an 11 percent increase over 2008. Struggling General Motors may be sitting on the sidelines this year (though the company is maintaining a pre-game and post-game presence), but traditional Super Bowl marketers like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi are happy to fill the holes.

"It's the one event everyone is watching, it's tough to step away from that," says Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Partners, a San Francisco advertising agency. Companies peddling beer and soda don't face the same potential backlash over Super Bowl spending that a bailed-out automaker would, he notes. What viewer wants to see his tax dollars being poured into a $3 million Super Bowl spot?

Some other Super Bowl numbers:

  • Zero — Number of General Motors commercials that will air during the 2009 Super Bowl. GM will still give away a Cadillac to the game's MVP.
  • 45.9 million — Dollars spent by GM on advertising during the five previous Super Bowls, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
  • 115 million — Dollars spent by top advertiser Anheuser-Busch during the previous five Super Bowls. The Super Bowl king is expected to purchase another 10 ads this year.
  • 90 million — Number of expected viewers who won't be tuning in for the game itself. They join in for the commercials, halftime show and for socializing, according to the National Retail Federation

That the Feb. 1 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals doesn't include (many) big names or big markets matters little. The Super Bowl is appointment television — the game hasn't averaged fewer than 80 million viewers in almost two decades.

Last year's Giants-Patriots clash had everything working for it — two major markets, an undefeated team (New England) playing for a place in history and a close game to hold viewers curious to see whether the Giants could pull off the upset (they did). The result: a record 97 million average viewers during the course of the game. The least watched since 1976? That would be the 73.8 million viewers who tuned into the San Francisco 49ers 55-10 pummeling of the Denver Broncos in 1990.

Pittsburgh-Arizona will fall somewhere in between. But that doesn't mean the match-up is lacking for story-lines. A win by the Steelers, a franchise with a strong national brand dating back to its dominance in the 1970s, would give them a record sixth Super Bowl triumph. They go in as a touchdown favorite against the Cinderella Cardinals, a team than sneaked into the post season with a 9-7 record before pulling off three straight playoff wins. It's the first Super Bowl for the Cards, a historically futile and nomadic franchise that called Chicago and St. Louis home before landing in Phoenix in 1988.

Some $10 billion is expected to be wagered on this year's game, according to data compiled by, a sports betting Web site. That's just 5 percent below the record set by the Steelers-Seahawks match-up in 2006. Oh — one last number worth noting. The number of times bettors have come out ahead against Nevada sports books since 1991? Just two. Overall, the sports books have taken over $100 million from bettors over the past 18 years, says Not bad.

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