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NFL's wildest week is PR chief's time to shine

For a PR chief charged with making sure the biggest TV event on the globe goes off without a hitch, Brian McCarthy acts like it's just another Monday.

He's at Tampa's Westin Hotel on Harbour Island, where he's about to chat with a local gathering of the Public Relations Society of America. So it's a high-profile PR guy talking to local PR people eager to hear tips from a pro — but who are keen to hear some behind-the-scenes tales of pulling off Super Bowls year after year after year.

So whether it was the anecdote of prepping tirelessly for a function with NFL Hall of Famer and Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke (only to be caught speechless when Nitschke asks, "Where's the bathroom?"), or politely telling halftime entertainer "Sir" Paul McCartney that his fly is down just before stepping out for a press conference, McCarthy delivers.

McCarthy is 40 but looks closer to 26, his age when he joined the National Football League in public relations. He reminds me of actor Michael Fox in the TV sitcom Spin City, in which Fox as deputy mayor spends his time trying to make his boss, the mayor of New York, look good. Like Fox's character, McCarthy, as NFL vice president of corporate communications, is good at his job.

There are 633 media organizations and nearly 4,400 journalists accredited to cover Sunday's Super Bowl of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Arizona Cardinals.

Once a sports reporter himself, McCarthy heads a PR group of 20 at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Their expertise is split among walking football statisticians and those specializing in entertainment, business and community relations. It's all about the game, McCarthy insists, but it's really about selling football as a major American (and increasingly global) entertainment venue.

In some ways, McCarthy suggests, the Super Bowl is more important in such a down economy. "It's a great escape," he says.

As a corporation, the NFL has 1,000-plus employees and annual revenue of $7-billion. But not all is first and 10, despite Forbes magazine last fall calling football the "strongest sport in the world."

Last month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent an internal memo telling employees the staff would be cut 10-15 percent in the next 60 days, and that a plan to expand into China would be halted.

"The current recession has presented severe financial challenges for our fans, business partners and clubs," Goodell's memo began. "I would like to be able to report that we are immune to the troubles around us. But we are not."

Last week, a PricewaterhouseCoopers report said reduced corporate and household spending, including fewer visitors and shorter stays, will mean Super Bowl XLIII will generate about $150 million in direct spending primarily in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. That's less than Super Bowls in 2008 or 2007, but more than those in 2006, 2005 or 2004.

So enjoy the game and parties. Just remember that even the NFL is not invulnerable to an all-out economic blitz.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

NFL's wildest week is PR chief's time to shine 01/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 12:25am]
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