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What’s the Future of the Super Bowl as a TV Event?

The Super Bowl’s long been the biggest TV event going in the United States, and 2021 won’t change that fact. Yet, some of the ratings coming out of this year’s game — a fairly uneventful, 31-9 win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — tell us some cracks beginning to show.

Or not, potentially. Whether or not the ratings for Bucs vs. Chiefs in Super Bowl LV (lowest since 1969, per SportsMediaWatch) says anything about the state of the Super Bowl, linear TV or the NFL as a TV property depends on your perspective.

For starters, 2020 was a strange year for TV, and that weirdness has carried into 2021. Along with the pandemic, increased political discourse and an audience shift toward streaming over linear viewing, this is clearly a transition period in how people fundamentally watch television. We don’t know how things will settle down as life gets back to “normal,” and viewer habits become more predictable amid the streaming migration once it’s been going for a few years. Yet, this feeling of constant tumult and change will end. That will certainly mean fewer people watching on linear TV. What we don’t know yet is what they’ll be watching, and how much of it… though screen time has been going up for years, as has the amount of content available, so there are still minutes out there to appeal to audiences with interesting content.

On the NFL front, the fact that the league could double its money on its upcoming media rights deal shows that despite declining sports viewership across the board in 2020, it’s still the most valuable inventory going. Now, the 2020 dip may be the start of a wider rebuke of sports as tentpole entertainment and the bulk of the cost of basic cable packages. Still, we don’t yet know that. And even if it becomes the case, the NFL remains the top dog on TV to a staggering extent (for example: since the start of 2020, NFL games had more than 3x the TV ad impressions of the next show, per data from iSpot.tv).

For the Super Bowl, this is where things get a little less straightforward. The game, like everything else, will be streamed more and more over time. This year’s was the most-streamed Super Bowl ever. Next year’s almost certainly takes that title from it, and so on.

Traditionally, the game has been a major opportunity to get brand messaging out in front of a national (read: everyone) audience, but as that national audience increasingly opts for streaming and/or watching on connected devices, there’s potentially much more value in ads being the year’s largest addressable opportunity instead. Ads during the game have already lost their “water cooler” status by way of social media and a fractured collective culture in favor of niche entertainment. Allowing for a Super Bowl of addressable ads means that not everyone sees the same Super Bowl spots, sure. But it also means networks are making more from selling TV ad inventory — and brands are getting a lot more out of advertising during the event (which doesn’t simplify decision-making around airing a Super Bowl spot as much as it just changes the math).

An additional consideration, perhaps, is what the effect of Tom Brady’s eventual retirement is on viewership. Some of the worst-rated and best-rated Super Bowls of the last 20 years have featured the future Hall-of-Famer. Fans appreciate prolonged excellence, but not monotony. And though fans now forget this, before Brady, the Super Bowl was rarely that compelling of a game.

Prior to Brady’s first appearance in 2002, just 13 of 35 Super Bowls (37%) were decided by 10 points or less. Since 2002, 12 of 20 (60%) have been decided by 10 or less, with many coming down to the final drive (a rarity in the preceding games). Whether this is the effect of Brady or league-wide parity, the ability of the Super Bowl to avoid losing viewers is contingent on (or at least the promise of) competitive games, no matter the participants. You can look at declining ratings for the College Football Playoff over the years as evidence of what happens when monotony and blowouts become the norm… even when considering the overwhelming popularity of football.

The future of the Super Bowl won’t be the same as what it’s been. Whether that’s a bad thing or not is still yet to be determined. But for now, at least, it’s still TV’s biggest event, no matter where people are watching it.