Competition from the presidential election and having a few familiar mega-stars missing on the field led to a 8% ratings drop during the regular season — the first decline in four years. Fans are complaining about three-hour-plus games dragged out by commercial breaks and video reviews of plays and conferences by officials.
In addition, the long-term medical effects of head trauma injuries suffered on the field cast a shadow over the future of the NFL’s talent pool as athletes look to safer sports.
But there appears to be little concern on Madison Avenue that any of those issues will diminish the massive TV audience of more than 100 million viewers expected to watch the Fox telecast of Super Bowl LI when the New England Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons in Houston.
The Super Bowl remains as much a pop culture event as it is a football game, which is expected to sustain viewer interest in spite of the rating declines during the regular season.
“I don’t think what we’ve seen with the NFL will necessarily play out in the Super Bowl,” said Jason Maltby, director of national video for the media buying firm Group M. “Last year’s ratings were down in the Super Bowl compared to the previous year, so they could be down again. I just question how much they can truly drop.”
Even if the Super Bowl LI audience declines from 111.9 million in 2016, it will still tower over any other TV program this year. Advertisers know that and their strong demand to be a part of TV’s biggest event has pushed the average cost of a 30-second commercial to a record $5 million.
Bruce Lefkowitz, executive vice president of sales for Fox, said the game is nearly sold out and Sunday will be highest grossing day in the history of the network.
“The Super Bowl transcends everything else in terms of scale and audience,” Lefkowitz said.
The average commercial price for the game is up from $2.98 million in 2010 — an increase linked to growth in the NFL’s popularity and the fact that mass audience television events such as the Super Bowl are increasingly valuable to advertisers at a time when viewership is so fragmented.
The Super Bowl has been setting Nielsen audience records since 2010, when 106.5 million viewers watched the New Orleans Saints top the Indianapolis Colts. That year the game telecast topped the 1983 finale of “M*A*S*H” as the most-watched program of all time, according to Nielsen.
The game has set audience records four times since then, the last being Super Bowl XLIX, watched on NBC by 114.4 million viewers in 2015.
The audience of 111.9 million viewers for Super Bowl 50 on CBS was a 2% decline from the previous year, but that number still ranks as the third most-watched broadcast ever. Super Bowl 50 towered over everything else that aired in 2016 — the second-place finisher was the historic Chicago Cubs victory in the seventh and deciding game of the World Series watched by 40.3 million viewers.
Although a strong match-up of teams can help, the Super Bowl benefits from the anticipation of the big-budget commercials and halftime spectacles featuring music superstars (this year it’s Lady Gaga). Those aspects of the telecast generate a real-time national conversation on social media platforms during the game, drawing in viewers who extend well beyond the NFL fans who watch during the regular season.
“We’ve all known for years that it’s not about the game itself,” Maltby of Group M said. “It’s about the commercials and the explosion in social media before, during and after the game. You can’t just look at the eyeballs you get during the game itself and say that’s the value. It’s everything that you do around the game as well.”
Advertisers who buy time on the game see their commercials get plenty of play on YouTube, network morning programs and “Entertainment Tonight.” Maltby noted that brands that run in the Super Bowl see a lift in sales along with surges in website visits and search engine results.
Fox is also making the game available for free viewing online over FoxSports.com. Although more viewers are expected to stream the game than ever before, Fox’s Lefkowitz does not believe that it will cut into the regular TV audience. Viewers who stream will see the same commercials as the regular TV audience.
“Not everyone can be in front of a 70-inch television at a giant party,” he said. “It will be additive.”
But after Super Bowl LI, the NFL will have to contend with long-term challenges that contributed to the audience erosion during the regular season.
In his pre-Super Bowl press conference held Wednesday in Houston, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is aware of the criticisms of its on-field product and telecasts, which some fans believe move at a glacial pace.
“We’re trying to make our games as exciting and action-packed as possible,” he said. “We have not dismissed any theories about how we can continue to engage our fans more extensively either on television or in the stadium.”
Goodell said the league is looking at shortening the number of commercial breaks from five to four each quarter and adding a play clock that can move the game along faster after an extra point. Finding ways to speed up the instant replay review process will also be examined.
But Goodell said the league remains committed to “Thursday Night Football,” the package of games shared by CBS, NBC and the NFL Network. Privately, TV sports executives say they believe that the additional prime-time game may be one more than football fans can support and is contributing to the audience decline in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” package. The Monday games saw the largest year-to-year falloff this last season.