Charts: Even in a world of cord-cutters, the Super Bowl remains the “unicorn” of broadcasting

Where will all the fans go?
Where will all the fans go?
Image: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
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This Sunday (Feb. 5), the New England Patriots will face off against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston, Texas in what is sure to be the biggest single televised event of the year. Even in the cord-cutting era, the Super Bowl’s reach is unparalleled, not only in the world of sports, but in all of broadcast TV.

It remains the world’s biggest advertising platform. Ad rates in the Super Bowl have climbed steadily over the last decade, according to data from Kantar Media, which tracks ad spending, and Nielsen, which monitors viewership. Ad Age reported that Fox was selling 30-second ad slots in this year’s game for a staggering $5 million.

But it’s unlikely that the big game will keep drawing as robust a TV audience as it once did. The steady rise in viewership the NFL has enjoyed for much of the past decade has begun to level off, as fans increasingly turn to phones, desktops, and smart TVs to get their sports fixes.

Should we be worried?

There isn’t much cause for alarm—yet.

“The reality is that long term, you’re going to see a natural tail in viewership simply because of the changing habits of people watching TV,” Dominic Curran, CEO of the sports and entertainment marketing agency Synergy USA, told Quartz.

During Super Bowl 50 last year, US TV viewership dipped 2% to 112 million average live- and same-day viewers, according to Nielsen. Roughly 2 million fewer people watched compared to the event’s previous record-setting year, when the Seattle Seahawks played the Patriots, but it was still the third most-watched broadcast in TV history.

It also brought in 37% more viewers than the second most-watched event of 2016—the Super Bowl post-game—and 59% more than the third most-watched event—another NFL game, the NFC Championship, TV by the Numbers reported.

All this is to say that even if slightly fewer viewers tune into Fox’s broadcast on Sunday at 6:30pm ET, there will still be an extraordinary number of people watching.  ”It’s still a big viewing occasion that’s a bit of a unicorn because it does get families and friends together,” said David Gaines at media agency Maxus Global.

What if we see another 2% dip—or worse?

Super Bowl viewership tends to fluctuate.

Looking back over the last five decades of Nielsen data, Super Bowl viewership has slipped by single-digit percentage points every few years—although the general trend has been exceedingly positive. The most recent dramatic drop was more than a decade ago, in 2005, when viewership fell 4% to 86 million.

If the Super Bowl sees another 2%, or even 3% dip this year, it will be a rare two-year slump. But the heads of the big three broadcasters that alternate airing the games each year—CBS, Fox, and NBC—probably won’t lose much sleep over it.

“We would need to see a couple of years of big steps backwards with context,” said Gaines, who added that even with big viewership spikes in the 1970s, the overall trend has remained strong.

The last time the Super Bowl lost one-tenth of its viewers from the previous year, for example, was in 1981. A 10% drop today would mean a loss of about 11 million people—that would underscore a fairly dramatic shift in the way fans are watching the game.

Some marketers may back out of future championship games, as Doritos, Taco Bell, and BMW’s Mini have this year, but there will be new entrants to take their places, said Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research. KFC, Wendy’s, and Nintendo are among a dozen first-time Super Bowl advertisers that will be making their national game-day debuts on Sunday.

This one comes, however, as regular-season viewership fell a remarkable 8% this time from the previous season.

Could the Super Bowl see the same drop as in the regular season?

It could—but the experts say that’s unlikely. “Viewership for Super Bowl may well have peaked,” said Curran. “But I don’t think it’s going to be a overnight cliff.”

Let’s remember that the Super Bowl is much more than a championship football game. It’s a cultural touchstone. It attracts the biggest names in music—this year, pop icon Lady Gaga will headline the halftime show. And the advertisements, which are refreshingly designed to entertain more than to sell, are a quarter of the draw.

“While regular-season ratings can ebb and flow over a tide in which nobody has any control, Super Bowl is still one of the few collective moments of a nation during the year,” said Curran. “It is a moment that people like to get together for… That’s what keeps it slightly immune from the overall drop in figures.”

As such, the Super Bowl cannot be compared to a regular NFL season, especially not the one that just concluded.

There were a myriad of other factors that impacted the regular-season numbers that wouldn’t affect Sunday’s game, including a high-impact election season with debates that coincided with NFL games, lackluster match-ups, and a controversial protest of the national anthem by player Colin Kaepernick.

Broadcasters have historically commanded such exorbitant prices for the Super Bowl because it’s one of the few times during the year when average Americans actually want to watch commercials. The game also reaches fans of almost every US demographic, which puts its ad inventory in high demand.

What would tip the scales?

If advertisers find that tech is a better ad spend than TV. In 2016, Gatorade reached even more people during the Super Bowl with a clever Snapchat filter than it would have during the TV broadcast. The filter of a virtual Gatorade cooler dunk reportedly made 160 million impressions.

But interest in the Super Bowl as a whole has remained rather steady, other metrics show, which is good news for the NFL. Adobe Digital Insights also compared (pdf) social media mentions around this year’s post-game NFL season to last year’s and found that it’s pacing down just 5% season-over-season at 6.2 million monthly US mentions—despite the benefit Super Bowl 50 had from being a milestone year and the retirement of superstar quarterback Peyton Manning.

Statista also found that 78% of people in the US plan to watch the game this year, based on a survey of 1,200 people in the US that was shared with Quartz by Maxus.

Fox is also expecting to hit a Super Bowl best with its free live stream of the game on Sunday, beating out the nearly 4 million viewers CBS pulled in the previous year. That would, of course, pull ratings away from the TV broadcast. But they’re likely folks who wouldn’t have watched through traditional TV channels anyway. What we’re seeing, said Curran, “is less a drop in ratings, as opposed to a diversification of ratings.”

In other words, the fans are still there.They just aren’t watching the way they used to.