Every year, the Super Bowl brings together two of America’s most popular pastimes: football and consumerism. 2022 was no different. Viewers witnessed the advertising presence of the usual Super Bowl suspects — the auto manufacturers, beer brands, snack foods, and popular tech companies. A handful of commercials that aired during Sunday’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams, however, were more than just product placements. They were attempts at persuading viewers to seriously consider cryptocurrency investments and sports betting, activities that have to do with money but with a whole lot more financial risk involved.
The 2022 Super Bowl has been dubbed the “Crypto Bowl” based on the number of crypto advertisers vying for viewers’ attention and trust. Not only that, the game was held at a Southern California stadium owned by SoFi, a financial services company that offers cryptocurrency trading with Coinbase. A more inclusive title, perhaps, might be the “Money Bowl.” Major sports betting platforms, including Caesars Sportsbook, DraftKings, and FanDuel, ran ads on Sunday. Sports betting might be an emerging industry as more and more states legalize the activity, but its nascent popularity, alongside cryptocurrency, is part of a growing trend.
Money, as a concept, feels increasingly gamified, which effectively blurs “the boundaries between what constitutes investing and what constitutes entertainment,” according to Vox’s Rebecca Jennings. And the prevalence of these companies at the Big Game suggests that it might be more profitable to classify themselves as the latter.
While the Super Bowl is still one of the most-watched television events of the year, its viewership over the past decade has steadily declined. Just 96.4 million people tuned in last year, compared to 114 million in 2015. Fewer people between the ages of 18 and 49, a key advertising demographic, are watching every year, and the NFL also seems to be losing out on casual viewers. NBC has yet to release the official viewership numbers for this year’s game.
That hasn’t affected the prices for mid-game ads. In fact, the cost of a television spot is at record highs, with companies forking out millions of dollars for a 30-second to minute-long spot.
SportsHandle, a blog that covers sports betting regulation in the US, reported that the NFL has limited the number of sportsbooks advertisements to six this season, a decision that likely put a premium on the few available spots. Caesars Sportsbook paid to run multiple ads over the weekend, including one during the Super Bowl’s second quarter that featured the Mannings, the football family that has produced a lineage of quarterback players. FanDuel launched a Super Bowl promo — bet $5 to potentially win $280 — to draw in new players, especially those in states where sports betting was recently legalized. DraftKings, which had a spot in the 2021 Super Bowl, ran two 15-second ads and offer viewers a chance to bet for free during the fourth quarter.
Some of America’s largest cryptocurrency companies — platforms where users can buy and sell crypto assets — paid top dollar for a brief feature. These services are ultimately competing against one another for customers, but the influx of crypto-related ads, seen collectively over the course of a three-hour broadcast, might be enough to garner mainstream interest in the once-niche financial asset.
Crypto executives see events like the Super Bowl as a high-profile opportunity to introduce the masses to trading digital currencies. Despite crypto’s volatile history, the sector has only grown since bitcoin, the world’s first cryptocurrency, was developed in 2009. Many payment processing services, from Square to PayPal, have begun integrating cryptocurrency capabilities into their platforms. Yet, cryptocurrencies are still considered risky assets to invest in, as there is not much federal regulation surrounding consumer protection and oversight.
Coinbase reportedly spent $14 million on a commercial with a flashing QR code that encouraged viewers to sign up for an account; new users will receive $15 in BTC until February 15. The strategy was so successful, in fact, that it caused the app to briefly crash during the Super Bowl broadcast.
Crypto.com aired its infamous “fortune favors the brave” commercial that was first released in October with Matt Damon. (The actor, clad in all black, is seen strolling through the halls of a computerized museum, preaching about the importance of bravery in making history. The implied message he delivers is that investing in crypto is groundbreaking and brave.)
Crypto exchange platform FTX plans to give away bitcoin to several winners as part of its Super Bowl campaign. The company has been especially active in staking out sports partnerships with Major League Baseball, the Washington Wizards, the Washington Capitals, and the Mercedes Formula One team; FTX also has individual deals with Steph Curry, Tom Brady (who has an equity stake in the company), and David Ortiz. Similarly, the Canadian crypto website BitBuy featured the Miami Heat’s Kyle Lowry on the Canadian broadcast of the game, with the basketball player riffing on the theme of “missed opportunity” as it relates to cryptocurrency investments.
FTX cofounder Sam Bankman-Fried told the Washington Post that the company’s Super Bowl ads are courting not only consumers but also US regulators. “We want to make sure that we’re painting, hopefully, a healthy image of ourselves and the industry,” he said. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to grow our U.S. business — a lot of that is working with U.S. regulators on bringing new products to market.”
Interest in cryptocurrency and digital assets has skyrocketed over the past year, and the US government, from a regulatory perspective, is scrambling to keep up. The crypto bubble (which includes NFTs and meme coins) is still inflating, according to Vox’s Emily Stewart: “If and when the bubble around some of these hyped investments bursts, a lot of people are going to get hurt and lose money.” Since so much of the crypto landscape is speculative, “venture capitalists and hedge funds are more likely to win the speculation game than the little guys caught in the mania.”
We're giving some #bitcoin away!— FTX - Built By Traders, For Traders (@FTX_Official) February 7, 2022
How much? $1 million worth?! $1.5 million worth?!!?! We don't actually know yet.
The later our Big Game ad airs, the more #bitcoin you can win. See you Sunday! #FTXcontest
No purchase necessary. Subject to T&C: https://t.co/L7o8Jz25TT pic.twitter.com/mfA0q2FIFG
There are a handful of crypto investors who have become overnight millionaires thanks to a few lucky investments. For the most part, though, regular people probably aren’t seeing the biggest gains. Newcomers to the scene will likely be forking out inflated amounts of money to purchase a share of ethereum or bitcoin, cryptocurrencies with the largest market cap.
A 30-second spot might not entirely change a doubtful viewer’s opinion on crypto or sports betting, but the primary goal for advertisers is brand exposure, not conversion. Despite the growing heaps of money poured into the production and purchase of Super Bowl ads, most aren’t particularly memorable. From time to time, a company might release an off-kilter ad that is poorly received, triggering a public relations fumble that typically ends in a half-hearted corporate apology. Still, they’re mostly midgame fodder: commercials that are entertaining at best and boring at worst, with some well-liked celebrities thrown in the mix.
There is, however, something potentially more sinister to the “Money Bowl” ads that are encouraging people to invest and play responsibly. People have always bet on sports, and they will do so whether it’s legal or not. The problem is that today, gambling has gone from a taboo activity to “being easier than ordering food on UberEats,” according to one 29-year-old.
Companies, mostly the sports-gambling sites, offered limited-time promotions to entice people to sign up for their services during the Big Game. These ads depend on a twisted sense of FOMO. It’s not enough to sit back and enjoy the game, the implied message goes, when you could potentially be earning free money on your couch.
Some marketing experts are comparing Sunday’s crypto ads to the 2000 Super Bowl, or the “Dot-Com Bowl” in which 14 different web companies purchased $44 million worth of ads. The short-term advertising gains from that game were not enough to offset most sites’ dwindling revenue; some went defunct by the end of that year. It’s possible that Web3-adjacent investments will prevail as financial concepts, but even so, not all projects and fads in the space will.
The same goes for crypto and sports betting: You win some and you lose some. (And gamblers, in the long term, generally end up losing.) What’s concerning is that advertisers have spent millions of dollars trying to convince viewers that they, too, can be winners, when from the start the game is rigged to profit the platforms, not the users.