This season may have been the NFL’s annus miserabilis, but Americans don’t seem to have gotten the message.
For the fourth time in five years, the Super Bowl set a ratings record, becoming the most-watched show in U.S. history with an average of 114.4 million total viewers tuning in for Sunday’s game, according to Nielsen.
The game, an epic tug-of-war televised live on NBC from Glendale, Ariz., that ended with the New England Patriots sealing a 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the final minutes, was a smash on social media as well. Twitter estimated more than 28 million tweets with terms related to the game — including the hashtag #SB49 — between kickoff and 30 minutes after the contest’s end. It was the most tweeted-about Super Bowl ever and was surpassed in overall usage only by last year’s World Cup semifinal between Brazil and Germany.
For NBC and its advertisers, it was a rich bonanza. Ratings soared through post-game airings of NBC’s thriller “The Blacklist” (26.5 million, a series record) and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (9.8 million, the best since last year’s post-Olympics premiere). Brands such as Nationwide Insurance, Budweiser and T-Mobile paid a reported $4.5 million per 30 seconds of ad time.
The paradox is that the hoopla capped what is likely the NFL’s worst year ever in the arena of public relations.
“This year, more than any, is proof that the NFL is an unstoppable entity,” said Andrew C. Billings, a professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in sports media. “It’s difficult to imagine any other sports or entertainment group having as difficult a PR year and yet coming out unscathed, at least from a ratings point of view.”
League executives came under withering fire this season after players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson were involved in separate but highly publicized abuse scandals. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of injured former players joined medical experts in demanding action on concussions that many veterans said had hobbled them with dementia and other serious maladies.
Cheating allegations even touched one of the Super Bowl teams, with the Patriots accused of improperly deflating footballs for a competitive advantage in the AFC Championship game last month. That investigation is ongoing; Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who on Sunday was crowned Super Bowl MVP for the third time, has denied any impropriety but could yet be implicated.
The cheers had barely subsided when Monday brought yet another league embarrassment, with the NFL Network sacking analyst Warren Sapp after he was arrested on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute in Phoenix just hours after the game ended.
But according to the statistics, Americans on Sunday sent a message through the clouds of scandal: Give us our football.
The Super Bowl is more than a game, according to Brad Adgate, analyst at Horizon Media in New York. The expensively produced commercials and the elaborate half-time shows make the event closer to a secular holiday. That includes this year’s half-time show, a colorful and explosive dancing-shark extravaganza led by pop star Katy Perry, that was the most-watched ever, with 118.5 million tuning in.
The Super Bowl “is a communal experience that people want to be part of,” Adgate said.
In fact, this was not the most popular Super Bowl ever as measured in the raw metric of TV ratings points. Sunday’s 47.5 rating ranked as No. 4 in the overall record books, with the Super Bowls in 1982 (49.1 rating), 1983 and 1986 delivering higher numbers.
But the value of each rating point increases over time along with the U.S. population. So the viewership numbers were much higher for Sunday, even though the overall proportion of people watching was slightly less than those earlier games.
Viewing for Sunday’s contest, not surprisingly, peaked during the Patriots’ game-winning scoring drive in the fourth quarter, a 15-minute period in which Brady completed 13 of 15 passes for 124 yards. An average of 120.8 million watched. The entire game set local records in Boston, home of the Patriots, and Phoenix.
Marketers drew a mixed reaction with their commercials, some of which were lavished with almost as much attention as a film premiere.
Twitter and Facebook users complained about a sobering Nationwide spot that showed a little boy ticking off all the wonderful things he would never get to do because, it was revealed at the end of the message, he had died in a household accident.
“No one really wants to be serious about anything except their team during the Super Bowl,” said Tucker Hassler, senior vice president of digital ad firm Sq1. “Everything else is just a party.”
Nissan also tugged at the heartstrings with a 90-second ad, set to Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” that outlined the relationship between a forever-absent race car driver and his young son.
Advertisers went for the “slightly sentimental and sometimes saccharine,” Hassler said, perhaps to appeal to women.
Other spots earned widespread praise, including a humorous ad for the video game “Clash of Clans” that featured movie star Liam Neeson.
For many companies, just being a part of the Super Bowl counts as a win.
As Hassler put it, “You have the entire nation, and perhaps even the world, for 30 seconds.”