PHOENIX—When it comes to the surging NFL, television records are made to be broken.
With young quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes going head-to-head, Rihanna headlining the halftime show, and Tom Brady possibly in the mix, Fox Sports’ telecast of the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Kansas City Chiefs could become the most-watched Super Bowl ever Sunday night.
For eight years, NBC Sports’ broadcast of the New England Patriots’ thrilling 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in 2015 has ruled as the most-viewed Big Game (114.4 million), according to Nielsen.
That beat Fox’s previous record (112.2 million) for the Seahawks’ 43-8 drubbing of the Denver Broncos the year before.
On the other hand, NBC Sports’ telecast of the Los Angeles Rams’ 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals last year averaged 99.2 million.
Only two of the last five Super Bowls have gone over 100 million viewers: Mahomes’ first Super Bowl vs. the San Francisco 49ers in 2020 (101.3 million), and, tellingly, the Eagles’ stunning upset of the Patriots in 2018 (103.5 million).
But skiers say go big or go home. Michael Mulvihill, Fox’s head of strategy and analytics, got out over his skis with his prediction for record viewership this week.
“We’re feeling pretty bullish about this matchup. Pretty bullish about the markets involved. Great about the momentum that the league has coming into this week,” Mulvihill told Front Office Sports on Tuesday. “We’re looking for 115 million viewers — which would be a new record.”
The Eagles replacing the Rams is a “pretty significant upgrade,” he added. Not only does Fox expect a huge “pop” from the Philadelphia market, but the network is counting on big numbers from surrounding Top 60 cities like Harrisburg and Scranton, Pa. And don’t forget New York, the nation’s largest TV market, which will tune in to mostly root against the Eagles.
Here’s why the stars could be aligning for Fox and the NFL on Sunday night.
The Eagles hail from the country’s fourth-largest TV market, behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They boast one of the most raucous, passionate fan bases in the country.
During Opening Night festivities here Monday night, the chants of “Fly Eagles Fly” and “Go Birds” easily drowned out Chiefs fans. Jalen Hurts, the 24-year-old Eagles quarterback, is looking for his first ring.
Mahomes, 27, has emerged as the face of the NFL. He’s playing in his third Super Bowl in only his sixth season, and his Chiefs are becoming a national TV draw, similar to the appeal of the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Their matchup will also be historic: They are the first two Black quarterbacks to face off in the Big Game.
Behind the Numbers
Nielsen began adding “out-of-home” (OOH) viewers from sports bars and restaurants to national measurements in 2020. That’s helped drive a number of NFL TV records this season.
On Thanksgiving, Fox scored the most-watched regular-season game ever, drawing 42 million viewers for the Cowboys vs. New York Giants.
And the Chiefs drew 51.3 million for their AFC Championship victory over the Bengals. It was the most-watched TV show of any kind since Super Bowl 56 — and the most-viewed NFL Conference Championship Game in four years.
In addition, expectations are building for Rihanna’s Halftime Show. Jay-Z, who forged a deal with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to take over halftime entertainment, has called her a “generational talent.”
Last but not least, there’s the will-he-or-won’t-he surrounding Brady’s long-awaited debut as a Fox NFL analyst. Brady told Colin Cowherd Monday he won’t start his 10-year, $375 million gig as the network’s lead NFL analyst until next fall.
But who’s to say the winningest Super Bowl quarterback of all time won’t pop up on a remote feed Sunday?
Curiosity about Brady would be enough to attract even non-football viewers watching “The Puppy Bowl” on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and TBS.
But Fox’s Super Bowl pregame producer Bill Richards flatly dismissed the notion Brady will make a cameo during the network’s 7.5-hour pregame coverage.
“I have zero plans for that,” he told FOS.
The Super Bowl annually generates the biggest TV audience of the year. But it’s been a long strange trip for the quintessential American game.
Super Bowl I wasn’t even called the Super Bowl. That nomenclature came later. It was actually called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”
The Packers’ win over the Chiefs was broadcast by not one, but two networks: NBC and CBS. That first game pulled 24.4 million viewers on NBC — or half the 50.7 million average for the NFL’s AFC/NFC Championship Games this season.
- 1969: Joe Namath and the New York Jets’ upset win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was the first to crack 40 million viewers (41.7 million).
- Late 1970s: America’s Game topped over 70 million viewers for the first time, thanks to the national appeal of teams like Terry Bradshaw’s Steelers and Roger Staubach’s Cowboys.
- 1982: 85.2 million viewers watched Joe Montana’s 49ers defeat the Bengals.
- 1986: Mike Ditka’s popular Chicago Bears grabbed 92.6 million for their mauling of the Patriots in 1986.
- 2010: The Super Bowl finally topped the 100 million barrier, with 106.5 million viewers tuning in for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints upset over Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.
Over the last five years, the game only cracked 100 million viewers twice. So what happened? Blame it partly on cord-cutting.
As an economic model, the cable bundle peaked around 2000. From 2015 on, younger consumers increasingly turned to streaming options offered by Netflix, Amazon, and Apple instead of linear TV.
Throw in the hangover from the pandemic, and a possible undercount of out-of-home viewers, and the Big Game viewership has been stuck in the high 90 million range in recent years. That could all change Sunday.
A New High?
The pandemic is over. And based on the enthusiasm of Super Bowl fans here in Phoenix, America is ready to party.
Even the struggling media industry is sending over 6,000 journalists to the Valley of the Sun. That could bring accredited media back up to pre-pandemic levels.
Douglas Pucci, a sports TV ratings expert for “Programming Insider,” believes the audience for Sunday’s game will top last year.
But no, Pucci doesn’t believe Eagles vs. Chiefs will beat Patriots vs. Seahawks for the all-time record.
If Nielsen included out-of-home viewing eight years ago, he thinks that the 2015 game would have topped 120 million viewers.
“That was at the peak when cable was still in well over 100 million households. It was the birth of Netflix and streaming expanding,” Pucci said. “Cord-cutting wasn’t as widespread. Plus you had the ascension of fantasy football. So all those factors contributed to the Big Game reaching its peak in 2015.”