February 3, 2021 8 min read
When Medium Rare co-founders and partners Joe Silberzweig and Adam Richman connected with me via Zoom earlier this week, all I could focus on were the palm trees outside the window of their production office in Tampa, Florida. Here in New York, it was snowing several inches per hour and pretty miserable, so my envy was palpable. Still, I wouldn’t have switched places with the duo, who were six days away from the launch of their latest high-stakes, elaborate, live-streaming production, The Shaq Bowl, which is being simulcast over Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch and LiveXLive (among numerous other platforms) from 3-6 p.m. ET this Super Bowl Sunday.
The event — a successor to last summer’s Shaquille O’Neal and Rob Gronkowski-starring Shaq v. Gronk — boasts multiple major sponsors (Pepsi, Papa John’s, Bacardi, Mercari, etc.) and will feature celebs ranging from Diplo and Tim Tebow to Offset and WWE Champion Drew McIntyre performing and/or competing in intramurals like dogdeball and tug-of-war. Producers Silberzweig and Richman pulled all the threads together and will be watching with fingers crossed that the logistics go off without a hitch.
So it seemed like a good time to catch up with the pair about staging yet another huge spectacle amid the limitations of an ongoing pandemic, as well as the process of courting sponsors otherwise reluctant to make big ad buys this year and hedging their bets that folks want an alternative to what Silberzweig describes as the typical pre-game purgatory of “watching the CBS countdown show with guys in suits, talking football.”
What was it like figuring out how to one-up Shaq vs. Gronk while still being mindful of Covid protocols?
Richman: Yeah, it’s funny you say that, Kenny. Right after Shaq vs. Gronk, which was filmed in Orlando, we went straight to Tampa to come look at venues [for a Super Bowl event] and met with the city and the mayor, thinking we were doing an in-person event. Obviously that wasn’t in the cards. What we’ve realized since Shaq vs. Gronk is how great these live streaming and virtual events can be. Since then we did Black Entrepreneurs Day and the Sports Illustrated Awards. And now with this one we’re like, we never want to do a live event again. I say that half jokingly, but we love the space and the power of it.
Silberzweig: In early December, that’s when we really started sitting down with Shaquille and said, “Listen, We’re not going to be able to do this live and in person. How do we keep the brand alive? It took some time, but we all landed on this realization that there is a true need and actual market opportunity to create a fun Super Bowl countdown show right before kickoff, especially this year when everybody’s at home with no Super Bowl parties and all of that.
What makes a virtual event more operationally manageable?
Richman: With the [in-person] event, there’s so many of these crazy variables: dealing with the permitting process, which is never fun; the weather is not in your control; dealing with the Fire Marshall last year at Shaq’s Fun House. All those curveballs are thrown out the window. Concert promotions have always been one of the riskiest businesses. You book all the talent, you pay for the venue and marketing, and you’re like, “I hope we sell enough tickets and sponsors.” When it comes to broadcasting, we don’t need to start actually laying out costs until we know there’s proof of concept, meaning there’s brands that want to participate. If no sponsors want to come on board for the Shaq Bowl, then we know we’re not going to spend a few million dollars to produce it. If we know that Mercari is interested in presenting and Pepsi wants to do the halftime show, now there’s a certain level of investment and it sort of removes that guessing game and the financial risk.
Image Credit: Medium Rare
Speaking of sponsors, Pepsi was among many big companies that opted out of an in-game ad this year. So did they come to you saying, “Hey, we need to allocate marketing spend differently, and maybe Shaq Bowl is it?”
Silberzweig: You know, I think with Shaq Bowl specifically, we provide a really interesting alternative to the traditional Super Bowl ad, which is priced at $5 million-plus for 30 seconds. What we’re building with Shaq and Gronk is the opportunity for [brands] to activate in a big and experiential and meaningful way with that social component. And obviously our partnership pricing starts well below $5 million.
Richman: These are the contacts and brands that we would deal with for a festival or live event, and now they’re adapting to come into the broadcast world with us, which is pretty incredible.
The question, then, is how you do all this brand integration while still allowing audiences to enjoy it without feeling barraged with ads and sponsorships?
Richman: Yeah, and look, that’s the balance. It’s really difficult, but obviously the brands want to achieve that, we want to achieve that and, more importantly, Shaq wants to achieve that. He doesn’t want to put something out there like a NASCAR car with sponsors all over it. That’s why we don’t sell commercials or salvage traditional advertising. It’s saying, “Hey, what would be fun?” With Jack’s Links, Joe and I brainstormed for a few days and we’re like, “Their character right now is Sasquatch. What if Sasquatch comes and arm wrestles Shaq? The viewers at home are going to love that. It’s hilarious, it’s fun, and it achieves something really cool and viral for the brand without feeling like you’re watching a commercial for 10 minutes.
Silberzweig: And if it’s not something that Shaq is going to think is cool, or adds value to the show in mine and Adam’s eyes, we won’t do it.
You guys had backgrounds in promoting live events before launching Shaq vs. Gronk. But when did all these huge brands and celebrities see Medium Rare as a credible production outfit to partner with?
Richman: We’ve built out Medium Rare over the last few years with the live events, but it’s insane that we could pull off for major events for broadcast [since last June]. When we called partners for Shaq vs. Gronk, we convinced them, but it was difficult, and it was a sale, and it was trying to really get them to jump in the pool with us. And the fees have basically doubled from what they were back in June, because partners didn’t know what it was then. There were no metrics. Now we have all this data to point to from the three [previous] events. That made the fourth one an easier sell.
Silberzweig: Black Entrepreneurs Day and the level of press we got on that one was really the proof in the pudding that Medium Rare is a lot more than just a live-event company and is capable of all sorts of things at the moment and can really adjust to figure out how to reimagine these properties in today’s world.
Everyone from MTV to WWE to Animal Planet has plotted Super Bowl counterprogramming over the years. Why are you sure Shaq Bowl will stick?
Richman: I wouldn’t say we’re looking at it as counter-programming, because we’re really owning that space up until the game. We know at 6:30, you’re not competing with the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter what you have. It’s actually pretty notorious that three to six [on Super Bowl Sunday] is the worst television programming of the year. We’re not saying the Puppy Bowl’s not steep competition, but you know, with all the celebrity talent and Shaq and the great marketing and press, all of that combined is a recipe to get people’s attention.
Should live-event promoters and venue owners be worrying about their obsolescence?
Richman: Joe and I were actually talking about this last night. The live-event industry is going to come roaring back. People cannot wait to get out of their house and be with people again. We imagine next year’s Shaq Bowl not only being an unbelievable broadcast, but having 10,000 people in the stands.
Silberzweig: We’re really bullish on the return of live [events]. I think people need that connection. When it’s back, they’ll be back stronger than ever, but for Adam and I, like you mentioned, this has been a blessing. We’ve been working hard and were forced to get creative, and we see broadcast as another vertical of the business, and it should stay that way for a long time.