September 1st, 2003

On the Mall, Kickoff Live is Mixing Cola, Concerts and Controversy

By David Montgomery
Washington Post

Picture the commissioner of a certain professional football league with a new
season to kick off. And the commander of a certain mighty military with some
troops to thank. And the manufacturer of a certain cola with a new flavor to
unveil. And the secretary of a certain interior with some national parks to
fix up.

They’ve all got problems to solve. Problems that could be turned into opportunities.
If only they could find allies. What should they do? Let’s put on our thinking
caps . . .

Oh, oh! They could get together and throw a party on the Mall! Invite Britney
Spears and her bellybutton! Use the Capitol as theatrical backdrop! Put Jumbotrons
on the grass facing the Washington Monument! Get the troops to attend in uniform
by promising them free T-shirts and proximity to the bellybutton! Show it live
on prime-time television!

The result would be "NFL Kickoff Live From the National Mall Presented
by Pepsi Vanilla," coming Thursday, the climax of the four-day NFL Kickoff
Football Festival Presented by Pepsi Vanilla, which starts today on the Mall.
The first three days of football activities on the grass, requiring a free ticket,
include the Reebok "Run to Daylight," the Coors Light "Field
Goal Kick" and the Pepsi Vanilla "Let It Fly." The 6 p.m. Thursday
pre-game concert features Spears, Aerosmith and Mary J. Blige, with Aretha Franklin
singing the national anthem. Priority concert viewing is reserved for military
personnel and families, with a spotlight on veterans of GWOT—the Global War
on Terrorism. Attendance estimates range up to 300,000.

Since the season opener Thursday night between the Washington Redskins and
the New York Jets at FedEx Field is sold out, after the concert you can hang
out on the Mall and watch the game on the Jumbotrons.

This is synergy, baby. This week the Mall is going to be the physical incarnation
of that powerful place in the American psyche where sports and war, patriotism
and marketing intersect. It’s going to be high-testosterone and family-friendly
at the same time. Everything will be red, white and blue: the colors of the
NFL and Pepsi. And it’s all going to be free, courtesy of $ 10 million paid
by the NFL and its sponsors. The money is for direct party costs and reimbursing
city and federal agencies for expenses.

Just when you thought the Mall had seen everything—a million men, a million
moms, races for cures, dog Frisbee, tent cities, teepees, naked hippies, tear
gas, tanks—this is new. Park officials and Mall historians can’t name another
case when a private business took over most of the grass between the Monument
and the Capitol grounds for 11 days (including setup time).

"I have a dream" is so last week—when people paused to remember
the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and the March on Washington.

Catchphrases sounding over the Mall this week are:

"Take Pride in America"—U.S. Department of Interior.

"Operation Tribute to Freedom"—the Pentagon.

"The Not-Too-Vanilla Vanilla"—Pepsi-Cola.

But come to think of it, maybe the football festival is not much different
from the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes up almost as much
space every summer and has corporate sponsors (including The Washington Post).
If there’s room on the Mall for a showcase of Uzbek throat singers and Malian
hut-builders and Scottish golfers and Appalachian dulcimer pickers, what’s the
matter with a celebration of such artifacts of American folk culture as the
forward pass, the handoff, the communal Sunday in front of the tube, the carbonated
caffeine sugar boost and the bare midriff?

Still, Mall watchdogs are worried the historic acreage is threatened with commercial
exploitation.

"They ought to have this in Orlando," says James Goode, a historian
who is curating the scholarly exhibit of Mall history at Chevy Chase Bank in
Bethesda.

While the Smithsonian folk festival "has always celebrated our country
and the past and the American people," says Charles Atherton, secretary
of the Commission of Fine Arts, the federal panel that oversees aesthetics in
ceremonial Washington, "it’s never been used for promotional purposes.
And that’s the fine line where you have to ask yourself if this is something
that is as American as apple pie, or if this is promoting big business. The
NFL is a big business, let’s face it." The NFL Pepsi-Vanilla festival "is
on the line," Atherton says.

But some Mall users see a place for the NFL, Pepsi and Britney.

Nate Brown, a 44-year-old community relations consultant, went to the Lincoln
Memorial last week to have his picture taken next to the words "I have
a dream" engraved where King delivered them 40 years ago to the day.

"I always think of this area as America’s back yard, where you see kids
fishing, or throwing a Frisbee, or what not—or they’re demonstrating in support
of a cause," he said. "If they want to show their support for Britney
Spears, come on down. At the same time, it’s going to reintroduce people in
a national television audience to the monuments and this beautiful area.

"I suppose there are some 15-year-olds who think Britney Spears is a national
monument."

A few years ago, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the league’s marketing
experts began thinking about how to launch the season with a bang similar to
the Super Bowl finale. Then came the 9/11 terrorism attacks, and last year league
officials approached New York City with an idea to salute the city and nation
—and generate excitement for the 2002 season—with a concert bash in Times
Square.

Times Square was closed for the party on the Thursday of last year’s first
game. Television ratings for the season opener shot up 11 percent.

Next, according to NFL officials, Tagliabue wanted to bring the idea to Washington
—the other region hit directly by the attacks, the command center for the
war on terrorism, and another city in contention to host a Super Bowl. The Mall
seemed like the ideal location, with the Capitol framed behind the arch of the
concert stage.

"It’s an amazing, respectful, truly American iconic sort of setting,"
says John Collins, NFL senior vice president of marketing and entertainment.
"It’s where so many legendary moments, these massive comings-together,
have happened."

The NFL thinks this will be another such moment—with 25,000 troops and family
members invited to stand in the front rows of the concert to be thanked on national
television for their service. Enlisted and civilian personnel serving around
the world will be saluted vicariously and will be able to tune in via Armed
Forces Radio and Television.

"From a pure NFL marketing point of view, we think it’s great," Collins
says. "It is a national platform that does have a lot of local opportunities."

But it’s not just about marketing, he insists: "We also have the opportunity
to inspire the mood of the country. . . . It’s an inspiring celebration of American
values."

He adds, "I guess you could cynically look at it and say, well, the NFL
is exploiting [the war]. We look at it differently. We look
at it as taking the opportunity to celebrate and thank everyday heroes who protect
and support our American values. . . . At the NFL we do two things pretty well.
We bring people together, and on our most American unofficial holidays like
the Super Bowl, we do a pretty good job of wrapping ourselves in the American
flag—which I think we have our fans’ permission to do."

The NFL does know its fans. The top 10 most-watched television broadcasts of
all time are all Super Bowls. About 120 million people watch NFL games each
week during the regular season, and 140 million watch the Super Bowl. That’s
nearly three times as many people as voted for either George Bush or Al Gore
in the last presidential election.

So if the Mall is a showcase for the aspirations of a democratic people, are
those numbers enough to qualify the NFL?

There is another, humbler reason why the Mall might seem a fitting place for
a football festival.

"I personally call it the world’s largest football field," says Brian
McCarthy, a league spokesman. "It’s about 40 yards across—a football
field is 53 yards across—and it just goes and goes."

In May, Tagliabue met at the Pentagon with Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman
of the Joint Chiefs, to pitch the plan for the kickoff event and salute to the
troops, according to league and Pentagon officials.

Myers apparently liked what he heard. In keeping with its rules against commercial
involvement, the Pentagon does not endorse the league or its sponsors, and it
has no role in putting on the party, but the Pentagon did agree to fold the
NFL kickoff bash into a new project called Operation Tribute to Freedom. That’s
a program "to demonstrate public appreciation for American men and women
in uniform and reinforce the bond between the citizenry and the military,"
according to the program’s Web site.

Several pages of that Pentagon site (http://www.ima.army.mil/events.asp) display the
red-white-and-blue logo of the event: "NFL Kickoff Live. Washington D.C.
Pepsi Vanilla."

"This is an opportunity for our service members and just a very gracious
gesture on the part of the NFL to invite us to attend," says Col. Richard
Breen, operations officer for Tribute to Freedom.

Service people can register for the concert event via the Web site, or show
their IDs for access to the upfront viewing locations. Some 20,000 people had
registered by last week, according to Breen.

Uniforms are not required, Breen says, but at the request of the NFL, the Pentagon
is encouraging service people to wear their short-sleeve, open collar uniforms,
to make a good impression on TV.

"For visual effect," says the NFL’s McCarthy, "that would further
reflect why we are doing this."

As the Pentagon was developing Operation Tribute to Freedom, Pepsi was gearing
up for the launch of a new drink to take on Vanilla Coke. Pepsi wanted to position
its drink as more subtly flavored: "The Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla."

"Music, sports and entertainment have been a huge part of how we market
our products, and this event has all of that," says Pepsi spokesman Dave
DeCecco.

Pepsi will hand out thousands of free samples of Pepsi Vanilla on the Mall,
and Pepsi Vanilla signs will be within television camera angles. Pepsi also
has been prominently displayed in the NFL’s extensive advertising campaign leading
up to this week.

A source familiar with the planning confirmed a New York Times report that
Pepsi is paying $ 2.5 million to co-sponsor the NFL Kickoff. Other sponsors
include Verizon, AOL and the New York Stock Exchange, along with Reebok and
Coors.

Meanwhile, while the Pentagon and Pepsi were at work on their projects, since
April the Department of the Interior has been rolling out "Take Pride in
America," a campaign to encourage volunteerism on America’s public lands.

The NFL contacted Interior, which includes the National Park Service, stewards
of the Mall. "The NFL Kickoff is a wonderful opportunity to showcase public
service by volunteers who help to protect our natural resources," Interior
Secretary Gale Norton said in a statement.

The idea is to use a huge, glitzy, quasi-commercial extravaganza on the green
grass of one historic park to urge respect for all parks and refuges. Norton
will get to speak at kickoff-related events, including a news conference with
Spears and other rock stars. Public service announcements will air on the Jumbotrons
and during a national radio campaign courtesy of the NFL. "Take Pride in
America" has become a slogan for the whole event and those words will be
on signs all over the Mall.

All of this just dropped unexpectedly in the District government’s lap. City
officials consider it manna from Heaven because they’ve got something to sell,
too: Washington itself. The city and the Redskins are bidding for a Super Bowl
at FedEx Field.

"People are more and more thinking of Washington as a city that has nightlife
and sports," says Tony Bullock, press secretary for Mayor Anthony Williams,
"and nothing could drive that message home more effectively than an event
like this."

The Mall has long been used to drive home messages—but is the "NFL
Kickoff Live From the National Mall Presented by Pepsi Vanilla" setting
a new standard for packaging this American space?

Certainly there’s been a commercial flavor before: The Friskies Alpo Canine
Frisbee Disc World Finals. Ford Motor auto repair contest. The Cirque du Soleil
circus tent that charged admission. But these have been comparatively small.
The Folklife Festival is larger, but it’s hosted by a public institution and
its corporate sponsors receive low-key recognition—company names are read
before performances and listed on signs with few, if any, logos.

There have been one-day football celebrations when the Redskins won Super Bowls.
And after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, there was a victory parade and military
hardware show on the Mall with private contractors showing off their products.

To some Mall watchers, "Kickoff Live" seems like those precedents
on steroids.

"It degrades that important location," says Dorn McGrath, professor
emeritus of urban and regional planning at George Washington University.

"The private corporation taking a permit for four days to have control
over that space for that long seems to me quite different than most other celebratory
events," says Lucy G. Barber, author of the 2002 book "Marching on
Washington." "You won’t be able to just walk up from the [Lincoln]
Memorial to the Washington Monument, choose your museum and end at the Capitol.
That national pilgrimage is completely disrupted for four days."

"They should be doing this in Iraq and doing what Bob Hope did,"
says Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.
"Go to where the poor troops really need them."

Feldman adds, "The Mall is a place for all of us to celebrate and have
fun, but it is essentially our national gathering place. What’s next? Are we
going to have a Wal-Mart celebration? . . . The Park Service is essentially
allowing them to imprint the national symbol on these private profit-making
ventures."

Atherton, of the Fine Arts Commission, says he is troubled that the NFL is
requiring tickets—even free tickets—to enter certain areas on the Mall.
The Folklife Festival doesn’t require free tickets, he says.

Spokesmen for the Park Service and the NFL say the tickets, easily available
from on-site kiosks, are needed to manage crowds.

Vikki Keys, acting superintendent of the Mall for the National Park Service,
says the event is being staged in accordance with the service’s guidelines governing
commercial displays. She said corporate sponsorships are to be expected to support
large events.

"The signage that goes up for the event is going to recognize the sponsors,"
she says. "Almost all public gatherings . . . have signage and have some
type of sponsor recognition."

McCarthy of the NFL says the league worked with the Park Service to come up
with displays that would be respectful of the location. At the same time, he
says, park officials "understand our need that to make this happen, we
need corporate support. To get corporate support, we need on-site signage among
the other activities around it."

The event logo—several feet high and mentioning the NFL and Pepsi Vanilla
—will be on dozens of signs throughout the Mall. Logos of all the sponsors
will appear on banners six feet high and hundreds of feet long attached to fences
enclosing the event. There will be two 40-foot inflatable football helmets—
one for the Redskins and one for the Jets.

And, for the first time in Mall history, when the network feed of the game
is broadcast on the Jumbotrons, television commercials will beam out in the
monumental night.

"It’s not going to become the Pepsi National Mall," says Bullock
of the mayor’s office. "It’s just a day or two of events, and there’s no
shortage of precedent for having rock-and-roll bands and popular culture exhibited
on the Mall, much of which has had corporate and private sector financing. I
don’t think it’s a big stretch."

Joe Perry, guitarist for Aerosmith, is looking forward to a gig on these resonant
acres.

"To play on that stage with the Capitol backlit and looking at the Lincoln
Memorial is going to be an amazing thing," he says. "The thing that
piqued our interest the most was the fact that we’ll be able to play for a lot
of the troops and show our support there."

Large sections of the Mall were already closed last week for NFL construction.
On Thursday afternoon, 18 protesters from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union
were arrested for trying to set up a poor people’s tent city on ground already
permitted to the NFL. But they didn’t blame the NFL, they blamed President Bush,
the ultimate boss of the U.S. Park Police.

"As an American speaking for myself, I think there are tons of better
things this Mall could be used for," said Galen Tyler of Philadelphia,
spokesman for the protesters. "But if you’re giving a free concert that
people from all around the country can come and see, I don’t have a problem
with that. They’re about profit and making money, but they got a public relations
operation that’s to the tender side compared to the Bush administration."

The absence of outrage among people getting arrested for violating the NFL’s
claim on public space may be an index of just how well the NFL knows the 140
million Americans who vote for it every Super Bowl Sunday.

"It’s an American sport," said Army Staff Sgt. Randall Reese, 45,
stationed in Washington, walking past NFL construction with his wife and three
sons. "It’s like going to Germany and getting upset at a lederhosen factory.
It’s like saying no karate in Japan."

The soldier adds: "It’s nice to be recognized," and says he plans
to attend.

"If they want to pay this money to put on something for the people, that’s
great," says Shelene Adams, visiting from St. Paul, Minn., with her father
and three sons. "It’d be more commercial if we had to pay."

Over at the Lincoln Memorial, the cool and quiet temple to some of the ideals
embodied in the Mall, people paused on the stairs where King’s words are carved,
before going inside to see the great sitting statue and read the words cut in
the marble walls. Mark Kaplan, visiting from Boston, was there. He looked east
across the Reflecting Pool, past the monument to where, if he squinted, he might
have seen the white NFL tents.

He said the football festival is a fine use of the Mall.

"To me football is American."

Staff writer Karlyn Barker contributed to this report.

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