Last year, the audience for the Super Bowl deflated like a football being prepared for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
NBC’s telecast of Super Bowl LII was watched by 103.4 million TV viewers, a 7% decline from the previous year and the fewest for the event since 2009, capping a tough, controversy-plagued year for the National Football League that saw regular season ratings dip 10%.
It also set off warning bells that maybe even the perennially most-watched TV event may not be immune to audience fragmentation.
But ad media buyers are expecting a Super Bowl ratings recovery this year. A new generation of star players and enforcement of new rules creating more offense revitalized interest in the league this past season, and TV audience levels for the NFL bounced back during the regular season — up 5% overall. The CBS telecast of the AFC Championship had the largest audience for a conference title game in five years with 54 million viewers. The trend points to a lift in the Nielsen number for Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII between Brady’s Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams on CBS in Atlanta.
“I would anticipate the game taking a jump back up,” said Adam Schwartz, senior vice president and director of sports media for the New York-based ad buying firm Horizon Media.
Along with a higher quality of play, Schwartz noted that the league has moved past the controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.
“Everything going on throughout last year turned people off,” Schwartz said.
The regional matchup may also provide a boost. Super Bowl LIII marks the first time Los Angeles, the second-largest television market, has had a home team in the game since 1984, when the Los Angeles Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins. The New England Patriots, representing the ninth-largest TV market, have a national following.
The more positive view of the NFL probably boosted the market for ad time during the game, analysts said. CBS is nearly sold out, with only a couple of spots left during half-time, according to ad buyers. (The network did not comment on the status of the game’s sales.)
Even with the drop in last year’s audience, CBS was able to command an average of $5.25 million for a 30-second spot, up from the $5.05 million taken in by NBC last year. Total ad revenue for the game itself should top the $358 million CBS took in for Super Bowl 50 in 2016, according to Standard Media Index data. NBC collected $353 million last year.
Combined with the pregame show and programs that air after the game (CBS is launching a new talent competition series, “The World’s Best”), the network should garner over $500 million for the day, in line with what NBC and Fox have pulled in the last two years with their telecasts.
Advertisers who bought the game this year are also paying for the audience that watches the livestream of the game on NFL.com and CBS All Access. The national commercial load will be identical to the TV broadcast. Last year, the livestreams had an audience of 2.5 million viewers. Lee Berke, president of the consulting firm LHB Sports, Entertainment and Media, predicts that number will top 3 million this year.
Even with last year’s audience decline, the Super Bowl has been far more durable than any other mass audience TV property over the last 10 years, a period that has seen younger consumers get more of their video from online streaming than traditional television.
The Super Bowl drew a record 98 million viewers in 2009. That same year, the Oscars were watched by 37 million viewers and the top prime-time series was “American Idol” on Fox, which averaged 24.7 million viewers.
In 2018, the Oscars hit an all-time low of 26 million viewers. The top-rated prime-time program of the 2017-18 TV season was CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” with 18.6 million viewers — 25% less than what “Idol” drew as a top show in 2009.
Nonetheless, over the next nine years, the Super Bowl topped 100 million viewers every year, including the record-setting 114.1 million viewers in 2015, before slipping to 103.4 million last year.
Berke says the widening delta between the ratings for the Super Bowl and everything else on television has enhanced its status as a platform for advertisers who want to make a major statement.
“If you’re looking for the ability to step into the town square and get the maximum audience for your product or service, the Super Bowl is it,” Berke said. “For the giant blaring announcement or introduction of a new campaign or a new product, there is still no place for doing that.”
Dr. George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, said ad time purchases by Amazon and Google, the tech companies that have disrupted the TV business, are a testament to the game’s continued strength. Amazon, which has been ramping up its overall TV advertising, is airing two spots, including one with astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly testing new products with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
“There’s been a shift from traditional media, yet here you have Amazon and Google spending a lot on the Super Bowl,” he said. “That should tell you the power that it still has.”
This year’s Super Bowl commercials have the usual array of celebrities (Harrison Ford and Forest Whitaker for Amazon’s Alexa, Jason Bateman for Hyundai, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges (in “Big Lebowski” Dude mode) for Stella Artois and Steve Carell, Lil John and Cardi B for Pepsi. They generally go for laughs as Super Bowl campaigns continue to move away from heavy social messages seen in the game two years ago after the election of President Trump.
The companies looking to make a more serious statement tend to be connecting them to a product or service. Bumble — the dating app in which female users initiate contact — features Serena Williams in a spot that emphasizes empowerment. Microsoft’s ad spotlights physically challenged children using their gaming devices.
The NFL is using its annual Super Bowl spot to kick off its 100th anniversary with an epic two-minute production featuring some of the league’s legendary stars from past and present, from Jim Brown to Odell Beckham. The spot, directed by Peter Berg and filmed in L.A., is set at a fancy NFL banquet where the formal tone of the event changes quickly after a loose ball comes off a celebratory cake.
“I’ve done a few Super Bowl commercials before, but this is the biggest one,” Berg said in an interview. “Generally when a brand steps up doing a Super Bowl spot, you know they are really going all in. They’re spending a lot of money, they are going to be judged by a massive audience. The pressure to not mess it up is pretty great.”
In this case, the client was the NFL; Commissioner Roger Goodell was on hand and even appears in the commercial. “There was an added intensity,” Berg said.
Berg said the freewheeling chaos in the commercial is aimed at showing the joy and passion that great players bring to the field. For the league, it’s a welcome shift away from the strife and discussion about waning popularity.