Cardi B and Bruno Mars, shown performing at the 2018 Grammy Awards, will be the big attraction on the third night of music at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. (Getty Images)

Bud Light-sponsored franchise gets Bruno Mars, Cardi B in debut year

Music has been an integral part of the Super Bowl since its debut in 1967, when marching bands hit the field at halftime. The relationship intensified in the ’90s, when performances by Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and more created the Super Bowl halftime show as we know it today.

This year, music’s role in Super Bowl festivities has grown again, with the introduction of a three-night music festival running Thursday through Saturday before the big game in Atlanta.

“Music has always been a big part of the Super Bowl, from halftime to pregame to obviously all the private corporate parties,” said John Collins, CEO of On Location Experiences, a premium hospitality company affiliated with the NFL and involved in staging the first Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest at State Farm Arena, a hop and a skip from Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Collins and his team at On Location — originally a department within the NFL that was spun off four years ago to private equity groups RedBird Capital and Bruin Sports Capital, with the league retaining a “significant piece of equity” — envisioned a music event that could serve “corporate hospitality all the way down to just passionate fans.”

Last summer, talks about such an event ramped up among Collins, the NFL, Anheuser-Busch and State Farm Arena. “The idea of being a unifying force at the most unifying of American holidays is really what brought AB, State Farm, the NFL and On Location together,” Collins said. “We all fortuitously came together and shared a vision and quickly rallied behind the vision and convinced a bunch of phenomenal artists to be part of this.”

All the involved parties brought something to the table. As one of the NFL’s biggest corporate sponsors, Anheuser-Busch was a natural partner for the event. Michel Doukeris, North American president and CEO, and Nick Kelly, head of U.S. sports marketing, lent expertise gleaned from working major music festivals and a significant activation at last year’s FIFA World Cup. Brian Rolapp, NFL chief media and business officer, wanted to create a new Super Bowl franchise. And Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin — whom Collins called a “long-term friend” and praises as a “big thinker who really likes to break the mold” — was willing to make State Farm Arena, which reopened last fall after a $193 million renovation, available for the event.

All that remained was booking the talent. For the festival’s first night, on Thursday, sponsor EA Sports signed on and helped develop a “Welcome to Atlanta” concept, quickly adding Ludacris, Migos, Lil Yachty and more to the bill. “They really wanted to show guests who were flocking to Atlanta what Atlanta music is all about,” Collins said.

For Friday, the festival brought in Aerosmith and Post Malone — who collaborated for a medley at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards — as a way of bridging the old and the new.

But the buzziest booking is Saturday’s combination of Bruno Mars and Cardi B. The two chart-toppers were slated to hit North American arenas last fall for the final leg of Mars’ world tour, but Cardi pulled out after the July birth of her daughter.

Mars “wanted to do something unique,” Collins said. “It was his vision to say, ‘Hey, I want to do something really different and special, so I want to give a glimpse at what we were going to be doing on that tour.'”

Mars’ relationships with the NFL — he’s performed at the Super Bowl halftime show twice — and Live Nation, which contributed production to his world tour, will play a similar role at the Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest, cemented that evening’s programming.

“It’s attracted interest from basically every corporate player who is going to be at the Super Bowl,” Collins said. “It clearly is the place to be.” Collins described State Farm Arena as “the best of both worlds,” with “cushy VIP areas” for high-end patrons and a “pretty good capacity” for general admission tickets; out of the 15,000 heads Collins expects to bring in every night, he says 10,000 will be general admission.

At the renovated State Farm Arena, a marquee headliner such as Justin Timberlake has sold 14,010 tickets with a gross of $2.21 million, according to Pollstar box office data. Over three concerts, Drake sold 14,670 tickets for a gross of $1.92 million a night. Joe Killian, founder of Killian and Co. and a seasoned producer with brand partnerships expertise, estimated that general admission tickets ranging from $70 to $100 a night and pricier VIP packages won’t offset Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest’s extensive costs, which, all told, could carry a price tag of $8 million or more. Not that he thinks that matters. “The brand essence of Budweiser is that it’s a great American beer,” Killian said. “If they can communicate that to the globe by doing a couple concerts, the dollar amount — whether it’s $8 (million) or $10 (million) or $20 million — is a drop in the bucket. It’s a smart investment.”

Looking ahead, Collins said the NFL and On Location had already started to plot a second edition of the festival, to be held in Miami, the site of next year’s Super Bowl. “To be able to launch this in Atlanta with the State Farm guys is phenomenal, but Miami brings a different sort of opportunity,” said Collins, adding that his team had started to plot the 2020 festival with representatives from the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Super Bowl host committee.

Among the ideas bouncing around? Hitting the sand. “We’ve already locked down a bunch of permits to be potentially out on South Beach, which we think would be really fun and phenomenal,” he said. “We love the idea of going outdoors in Miami. That’ll give it some additional dimension in terms of feeling like a festival. Maybe operating for longer periods of time, with multiple performances over the course of a full day.”

Such an expansion matches Killian’s observation that “brands always want to surround the event itself, because there’s a limited number of tickets to the Super Bowl.” Experiences carry more weight for consumers than traditional advertising, he said, so it follows that major brands are developing and expanding that type of programming.

With major cities Tampa and Los Angeles hosting the big game in 2021 and 2022, respectively, the event’s future appears bright. Said Collins: “We called it the inaugural because we definitely plan on this being a part of the Super Bowl landscape for a long, long time.”