As television continues to fragment and viewers (especially younger ones) are watching more content on other screens, The Super Bowl is the last mass media event. One would have to go back to The Seinfeld finale in the spring of 1998 to find a television program that delivered an audience comparable to the big game.
Although the audience delivery for The Super Bowl dipped last year for the first time since 2005, the last four Super Bowls have been the four most watched television shows in the U.S., an extraordinary accomplishment. This week Super Bowl XLVIII should exceed the audience delivery of the record 111.3 million viewers who tuned in to Super Bowl XLVI of 2012. Super Bowl XLVIII should set the record for the following reasons.
Ratings: Despite such off the field concerns as concussions and bullying, the NFL had a very strong regular season in 2013; their five television partners reported an increase of 5% in viewing from 2012. ESPN’s Monday Night Football audience grew by 7% in 2013 from the previous year and recorded its best year since 2010. Similarly, CBS also had its best season in three years with a 5% growth in viewing. The NFL’s own cable network airing of Thursday night games resulted in its fifth consecutive year of audience growth. NBC Sunday Night Football averaged nearly 22 million viewers (+2%) and is on pace to be prime time TV’s top rated program for the third straight broadcast season. Fox, which will televise the Super Bowl, grew its audience by 6.5%, the network averaged over 21 million viewers in 2013 making it the watched season since they began broadcasting NFL games back in 1994.
The ratings surge continued in this post season. Nine of the ten play-off games averaged over 30 million viewers. The two conference championship games on Fox and CBS both averaged over 50 million viewers, matching the audience level of 2012 as the second highest ever behind the 1982 championship games. The audience delivery of the ten playoff games was 10% higher than last season and the two conference championship games were 20% above last year.
The Matchup: Prior to the start of the season many football analysts had picked the two teams as the best in their respective conferences. Both teams come into the Super Bowl with identical records (including post season) of 15 wins and three losses and were seeded first in their respective conferences. This is only the second time in the past twenty years that teams with the best record in their conferences are facing each other in The Super Bowl. While a close game is not guaranteed, one reason why The Super Bowl has been on a ratings upswing has been the recent competitiveness of the big game. Five of the last six Super Bowls have been decided by a touchdown or less. A close game keeps football fans tuned in (along with the ads) and that increases ratings.
The popularity of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning should also help. Manning began the season tossing a record tying seven touchdown passes (in one game) against last year’s Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Manning also finished with a flourish setting records for touchdown passes and passing yardage in one season. Manning is one of the NFL’s most recognizable personalities off the field endorsing products from automobiles to quick service restaurants.
The Weather: Another factor is the site of Super Bowl XLVIII, the New York/New Jersey region. It marks the first time the Super Bowl will be played outdoors in a cold weather location. By comparison, the last three Super Bowls in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Dallas were played in either a domed stadiums or a stadium with a retractable roof. Leading up to the game, more attention will be paid to the weather forecast in the New York metropolitan area than in recent memory, further heightening interest.
Although Super Bowl ratings (unlike The World Series or NBA Finals) are not impacted by the market size of participating teams or the network, ratings tend to be higher in markets of the two participating teams and the host city. For example, the ratings in New Orleans, the host city last season, were the second highest among TV markets. Having the game in New York, the nation’s largest market with the potential of inclement weather, can only boost ratings.
In short, the marketers that paid an estimated $4 million per 30 second ad for the big game should be rewarded with a record viewing audience.