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Which Trend Will Super Bowl LVI Follow: NFL’s Recent Upswing or TV’s Downslide?

Television’s premier event arrives once again this coming Sunday. As divided as we may be or seem in this nation, Super Bowl Sunday is the one day that unites most of us Americans to watch the culmination of the National League Football season.

The early days of the Super Bowl coincided with a time when professional football was going through a metamorphosis. The former American Football League then merged with the National Football League in 1970. Franchises like the New York Jets (led by “Broadway” Joe Namath), the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders proved they could more than hold their own as AFL representatives in the Super Bowl in relation to their original NFL counterparts.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, baseball was still king in our country. How could football compete? The newly-configured NFL brought a new concept: football in prime time, thanks to “Monday Night Football.” Baseball was the game played in the daytime. Football aimed to be the premium sport of the evening, even for only one night of the week.

The sport searched for a boost in exposure. Its product was already established as an American tradition. But, it desired to reach greater heights of popularity in the American sports culture.

Football needed television to succeed.

Fifty years later, it’s television that needs football just to survive.

Sports, in general, are the crown jewel of the viewing medium. It’s all live. It’s often unpredictable. It’s chock full of must-see moments. And no sport in the United States draws them in like football.

The state of television itself has evolved at a rapid rate within a short time frame. Do you still go channel flipping on your TV set after arriving home from a day’s work and plopping yourself on the couch? Chances are (especially if you’re in your 20’s) you’re more likely to be menu surfing in your Netflix or whatever streaming apps to access more desirable content. Options like those are what made over-the-air TV less appealing. The dwindling overall TV ratings across each passing year further prove the increasing disinterest in the linear platform.

Those declining audiences lead to decreasing advertiser revenues. And that is what makes the Super Bowl fascinating in this era, for its ad rate continues to increase annually regardless of recent trends. This year, a 30-second spot cost advertisers approximately $6.5 million, according to media buyers. That is up +$1 million from last year. NBC, the network broadcasting Sunday’s Super Bowl, said multiple spots were sold at $7 million. All this, despite a star-studded Super Bowl featuring Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes just twelve months prior dipping to a 14-year low in viewership. Was that because it was in the mid-pandemic malaise that befell every sport at that time? While Super Bowl LV took place on-time, it was the conclusion of an unconventional postponement-filled season.

Did last year’s Super Bowl signal that even the largest TV event of all cannot avoid viewer erosion? It had hovered above 100 million total viewers for over a decade (until last year), but within those figures, the amount of those aged 18 to 49 have declined each year for the past nine consecutive years. As tabulated by Jon Lewis on the website Sports Media Watch, the Super Bowl in Feb. 2012 attracted its highest-ever mark of 52.5 million adults 18-49; last year (which did not factor the young-skewing streaming audience), it drew 34.3 million in the key demo. That’s 35 percent less than a decade ago. Much like the TV world, the Super Bowl is aging.

Figures like these, though, are still massive. The aforementioned declines occurred at a vastly gradual rate than anything else on TV. To date, the current Olympics are drawing about half in total viewers and 50-60 percent lower among young adults — that’s in comparison to 2018.

Super Bowl LVI will also be streaming. It’s a requirement that all live events feature that option, for that’s where those “lost” TV viewers now venture. But 100 million people won’t be streaming simultaneously. Even in 2022, no available bandwidth can handle even a small fraction of that Super Bowl-sized audience. That’s where linear television still attains a big advantage — TV’s been reliably transmitting live events for decades!

What folks will witness this Sunday is legendary play-by-play announcer Al Michaels who will call the eleventh Super Bowl of his illustrious career. It is the final game of his current NBC contract, and perhaps his final NBC broadcast.

Analyst Cris Collinsworth will be calling his fifth Super Bowl, one that may hold dearest to his heart. Forty years ago, he began his professional playing career as wide receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals. They reached the Super Bowl in his rookie season. He’ll be calling those Bengals who are in their first Super Bowl since Jan. 1989, the last game of Collinsworth’s playing career.

The Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams — the matchup we all predicted long ago! (Heck, I projected a Kansas City-San Francisco Super Bowl heading in to the conference championship games two weeks ago.) The rise of Cincinnati’s quarterback Joe Burrow to NFL stardom has happened mighty quick. Twenty five months ago, he was leading the LSU Tigers to a college football national championship. Thirteen months ago, he had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee that ended his rookie season.

Burrow’s presence has lifted the Bengals franchise that has long been the doormat of their AFC North division. They only won two regular season games in 2019; a mere four last season. This year, they won ten games and the division title.

Cincinnati has traveled an uneasy path through this postseason. Burrow was sacked nine times by the Tennessee Titans’ defense but still prevailed in the Divisional round. And, they came back from down 21-3 to the Kansas City Chiefs on the road in the AFC Championship Game to ultimately win 27-24 in overtime.

Like Burrow, Matthew Stafford was also the first overall pick in his respective draft with the hopes of resurrecting the franchise that selected him. But like Andy Dufresne’s prison escape through the mud in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Stafford’s journey was long and treacherous. He spent twelve years with the Detroit Lions, putting up above-average numbers but only reaching the playoffs three times, losing all three of those games. The Lions mostly achieved losing records during his time there.

Then, at around this time in 2021 at a vacation resort in Mexico, Stafford had a chance encounter with Rams head coach Sean McVay. A trade would follow, with the Rams landing Stafford prior to the season. As the regular season progressed, the team was being assembled as if it were a wily veteran version of the Avengers — former Pro Bowlers Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr. and Eric Weddle were brought in to the mix.

Perhaps season number 13 could be a lucky one for Stafford, who accomplished a signature last-minute drive with All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp to knock out the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and Tom Brady in to retirement) in the Divisional round.

Certainly, Bengals vs. Rams offers one of the most unique build-ups ever to this championship. The Cincinnati Bengals don’t have a national following and hail from a small market The L.A. Rams only got many marquee NFL schedule windows (prime time or late Sunday afternoon) this past season due to the networks banking on Stafford. Sample any Rams game at SoFi and the number of fans of the visiting squad make up the majority of the stadium’s crowd.

The site of Super Bowl LVI is SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif. — the second consecutive time the event is held at the home field of one of the game’s participants. As an homage to the city, West Coast hip-hop legends Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg will headline the halftime show, joined by Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige.

2021 marked the first time the NFL featured 17 games within the regular season. That shifted the normal postseason schedule to one week later, including the Super Bowl which, this year, takes place in the midst of the Winter Olympics for the very first time. NBC dubbed the combination of events as “Once in a Lifetime”, although the network may make this routine every four years — the Olympics certainly need the boost, televised following the Super Bowl. While those international Games keep fading, the NFL has seen double-digit percent increases from last season and last postseason. The momentum of these thrilling playoffs will continue. The Super Bowl will bounce to 104 million total viewers across all platforms including Peacock and Telemundo, and incorporating out-of-home viewing.

I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for Super Bowl LVI. Here are their takes:

Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider

93.4 million
Given the factionalination in broadcasting at present, I have to assume there might be more audience erosion. That said, I have dropped the total viewer tally by 3 million viewers, which certainly is still well above anything else this year.

Maury Brown, Forbes

The NFL has had an extraordinary season in the viewership department as well as some of the best postseason games in history. That should fuel a rise in numbers over last year. I look for something in the 103 million range.

Jimmy Traina, writer at Sports Illustrated and host of SI Media Podcast

100.5 million: Ratings have been up all season and we’re in a different place with the pandemic, so I expect a nice increase bump for the viewership. As nice a story as the Bengals are, nobody cares about the Rams. Even the people in LA. I would’ve guessed a bigger increase if Brady, Rodgers or the Chiefs were here.

Jay Posner, sports editor of San Diego Union-Tribune

100.5 million – NFL ratings have been on the rebound this year and I see that continuing, helped by a game that should be much closer than last year’s.

Bill Shea, senior writer at The Athletic

I predict NBC’s linear broadcast at least matches last year’s 96.4 million total audience, and would add another six to seven million for digital and Spanish language. Why? We’ve seen an overall rebound in live sports viewership since last year’s Super Bowl. I think we match the game from two years ago to at least match or perhaps exceed the pre-pandemic number of 102.1 million.

Ken Fang, Awful Announcing

With increased viewership across the board, the Big Game will go north of 100 million this year after falling below the century mark in 2021. While CBS saw a figure that fell to 96.4 million on the network and various streaming platforms, Super Bowl XLVI will get the benefit of increased viewership and more people out and about at parties and bars.

On NBC/Peacock/Telemundo/NFL/Yahoo, the viewership will increase to 105.6 million this year.

Mark Cuban, “Shark Tank” entrepreneur/Dallas Mavericks owner

120 million aggregate.  Out of home measurement is a huge impact . I think more people will want to go to each others home for SB parties and that will push numbers dramatically higher 

Phillip Swann, TV Answer Man

100 million. The NFL locomotive keeping humming with a return to a 100 million viewership.

Robert Seidman,

106.5 million and if it’s the most-watched since Super Bowl LI (2017) I won’t be shocked.

Out of home viewing counted last year but was undercounted due to Nielsen error. Nielsen has now corrected that and made adjustments for the current NFL season. Additionally,  NFL viewership behavior seems mostly back to normal. Last year, most of the people who wanted the vaccine weren’t yet vaccinated by the Super Bowl.

Andrew Bucholtz, Awful Announcing

I’ll guess 105 million. I think the NFL ratings rebound we’ve seen this year continues, and gets this over the last three Super Bowl numbers, but not quite as high as 2018.

Evan Boyd, Stats by STATS researcher

While Cincinnati is not a major market, it seems likely that almost the entire state of Ohio and northern Kentucky will be glued to watch the Bengals win the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. Plus, given how exciting the Divisional and Championship games were, I think people are going to be hyped for this game. Ratings will be back. I’ll say this game reaches 111 million.

Dan Cohen, Senior Vice President of Octagon Sports and Entertainment Network

The Playoffs have showcased some of the best NFL content in history & pumped the prime for general consumer interest. With OOH (out-of-home) measurement, simulcast on broadcast TV in Spanish (Telemundo) and Peacock, and all streaming #s up: I think the NFL beats its 2019 high of 102 million and lands 104 million.

Ryan Glasspiegel, New York Post sports/entertainment reporter

113 million – even though this isn’t the ideal viewership matchup, out-of-home is going to really carry it to a near record number now that most of the country is out and moving about.

Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer

99.9 million because it finally features a super bowl with some new faces and teams. I know the Rams were there in 2019 but they have some new players to root for and Cincinnati hasn’t been there since 1989.

Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer

The recent upswing in NFL viewership will also help this Super Bowl. I’m going to predict 100.1 million, and I think the number could go higher if it’s a close game.

Rich Greenfield, Media and Technology Analyst at LightShed Partners

103 million – the NFL post season has had incredible content and has likely re-engaged dormant or occasional fans. An LA team in the Super Bowl should help as well.

Lou D’Ermilio, LOUD Communications, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports media relations

The NFL has certainly had a comeback season in terms of interest and television viewership, so I’ll be very surprised if the Super Bowl fails to follow along at roughly the same pace as the regular season. I’m estimating the audience to be 106.1 million viewers, which would make it the most-watched Super Bowl since 2017.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor

The playoffs have been unbelievable so far, some of the best games on the field in the history of the sport. I think viewership will be high Sunday, around 110 million.

Andrew Marchand, New York Post sports media columnist and co-host of the Marchand & Ourand Sports Media Podcast

107 million. I see the NFL upward trend continuing.

Richard Deitsch, sports media columnist at The Athletic and host of the Sports Media podcast

102.5 million: There’s been great viewership momentum for these playoffs and I think this year’s game returns to the 100+ million mark. As always with the Super Bowl, how competitive the game is really matters. I think a blowout will fall under 100 million but a tight game (which I expect) will top the 2020 Super Bowl between Kansas City and San Francisco (102.1M).

Joe Mauceri, WPIX-TV sports anchor and co-host of “NY Sports Nation”

I think the viewership will be flat or down.  I think streaming platforms and other websites will make it more difficult to track. And I think people will still weary of get togethers because of COVID so casual fans will not be watching.

Michael McCarthy, Senior Writer at Front Office Sports

NFL is en fuego ratings-wise this year. Fresh faces on both sideline help NBC go well over 100 million viewers. Total: 105.5 million

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

I think last year’s lower-than-usual Super Bowl audience can be mostly attributed to the strange circumstances (half-empty stadium) and Nielsen’s undercount of out-of-home data. Given what we’ve seen so far this postseason, I think the impact of (accurately-measured) out-of-home viewing will be enough to push this Super Bowl past the 100M viewer mark — even if the rating is still below 40. My prediction is 100.1M viewers.

David Barron, Houston Chronicle sports media columnist

After alas, being a justified pessimist on the Winter Olympics, I’m guessing that fans who bought in to the NFL playoffs this year will want to stick with things to the end. I think the audience will total 107 million, which would be the largest audience since the OT game between the Patriots and Falcons in Houston.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

No one expected the Bengals and the Rams to be in The Big Game when the season started, so the surprise factor should drive ratings – even without Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. I think tune-in will be higher this year, going with an estimate of 101.3 million viewers on NBC and Peacock combined.

Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy

I expect the Super Bowl to benefit from the same tailwinds that drove regular season and playoff viewing back to the 2019 pandemic trend line. In particular, an exponentially accelerating “re-opening” and the strategic impact of Out of Home (OOH) viewing that should be on epic display during the Super Bowl. The NFL is the property that gains the most of Out of Home viewing and while OOH was a factor in last year’s SB figures we probably didn’t see its full impact due to both pandemic restrictions and mindset still mostly in place. As we saw in during the regular season and playoffs, OOH is a big lift to viewing (+8-10%) and the biggest live media event in the country is probably gonna get at least that thanks to folks gathering to watch. As a result, Super Bowl LVI should bound back some from last year’s record lows to pull 102M viewers (up +11% vs. last year) off a 41.4 Household Rating. I’d also expect the money demo of A18-49 to improve vs. last year and deliver 36.4M viewers, a +6% improvement. I’ll add that this year’s “Big Game” has lot of other intrinsic viewing positives to help it along as well to include wide scale promotion in NBC’s Winter Olympic coverage (averaging 8-10M viewers across all platforms in Prime for 10 consecutive nights), the Rams playing in their home market which happens to have the second largest number of U.S. TV homes, and the addition of Spanish Language broadcaster Telemundo. It’s also been a great season and terrific playoffs and the game features established and emerging stars which will all help tune-in. Also of note, streaming will continue to grow although still remain less than 10% of total game viewing.

To recap, here are the predictions in sorted order (you may click on their name for their respective analyses)

Name Viewers
(in millions)
Marc Berman 93.4
Joe Mauceri 96.4
Scott Nolte 99.9
Philip Swann 100.0
Jason Jacobs 100.1
Jon Lewis 100.1
Jay Posner 100.5
Jimmy Traina 100.5
Terence Henderson 101.3
Patrick Crakes 102.0
Bill Shea 102.1
Richard Deitsch 102.5
Maury Brown 103.0
Rich Greenfield 103.0
Dan Cohen 104.0
Douglas Pucci 104.0
Andrew Bucholtz 105.0
Michael McCarthy 105.5
Ken Fang 105.6
Lou D’Ermilio 106.1
Robert Seidman 106.5
Andrew Marchand 107.0
David Barron 107.0
Dan Serafin 110.0
Evan Boyd 111.0
Ryan Glasspiegel 113.0
Mark Cuban 120.0