Why Examining the Initial Super Bowl Ratings Causes Confusion

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A perfect storm helped bring in the lowest Super Bowl ratings in a decade.

Low scores and a clouded NFL image likely contributed to the low Super Bowl ratings, according to Vince Gennaro, the dean at New York University Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport. 

Nielsen reported a preliminary 41.1 U.S. household rating for New England Patriots’ 13-3 win against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, the lowest in a decade when the Steelers took on the Cardinals in 2009. Nielsen’s preliminary estimates drew 98.2 million viewers with the event viewed in 67 percent of U.S. homes.

On the digital side, though, CBS reported digital-viewing records.

Gennaro was surprised by the low ratings, considering a five-percent bump in regular-season ratings against last season.

“After one- or two-year doldrums for regular seasons, this year, there was a surge,” Gennaro said. “I attribute that to the product on the field being phenomenal. I thought maybe that would carry over and make it a top Super Bowl.”

The Super Bowl, however, did not set any ratings on fire. Gennaro said that could be, in part, because the New England Patriots and Tom Brady are an acquired taste and despite Los Angeles’ huge market, the Rams still don’t have a massive foothold in Southern California after the team’s move from St. Louis.

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Gennaro also believes CBS didn’t get its full value out of Tony Romo, who garnered plenty of praise in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Romo has set a new standard for football analysis, Gennaro said. His insight is a draw for cerebral and casual fans alike, but the Super Bowl transcends sports fans and has historically been a cultural event.

The luster hasn’t diminished as a cultural event, but there are the clouds looming over the NFL that Gennaro said might draw non-fans away from the Super Bowl, ranging from CTE storylines, to the national anthem controversy, to domestic-abuse issues. As the NFL has been a ratings giant compared to other leagues, Gennaro said it has the most to lose and is relatively struggling compared to other sports like soccer, basketball and esports in the Gen Z demographic.

“These negatives could drive them to the sidelines and pass on the event,” he said. “They still have work to do in rebuilding their image, especially with young people.”

Also of concern in the ratings for casual fans was a lackluster halftime show and uneventful ads, which had become an annual draw for many to the game, said Gennaro, who spent 20 years with Pepsi — including stints in marketing.

“I felt a lot of the ads lacked the eye-popping nature they’ve been known to have,” he said. “There’s something about that. More and more ads each year also are for movies and events opposed to products.”

The constant bombardment of NFL content also likely doesn’t help the Super Bowl scheduled viewing. What used to be appointment viewing on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights has since added Sunday nights, Thursday nights and, in December, Saturdays. Add in a 24/7 news cycle around the sport — and the content can be draining, leaving Gennaro to wonder if it’s “chipping away at the ritual.”

The initial Nielsen overnight Super Bowl ratings check in on the major markets — New Orleans, perhaps predictably, was down — and official ratings come out later this week.

Streaming numbers are quickly rising, however, as this year CBS reported 2.6 million average-minute audience — an increase of 31 percent from last year. Last week, CBS ran aggressive on-the-ground programming in Atlanta on CBS Sports HQ, and CBS All Access experienced single-day records on Sunday, including an 84-percent increase in subscriber signups and a 46-percent increase in unique viewers.

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Prior to the game, a PCMag and Sports Illustrated poll found 33 percent of 18-24-year-olds planned to stream the game this year; 15 percent of the overall responses planned to stream Super Bowl LIII.

Despite slight declining Super Bowl ratings the past few years, Gennaro doesn’t necessarily think the trend will continue, but he does believe more than ever the Super Bowl will depend on matchups. Nielsen’s historical Super Bowl ratings do include several down years with ratings near 40 in the early 2000s, before a steady climb to 2015’s 47.5. 

“There was a time when the Super Bowl was immune to the storylines,” he said. “I think we’re getting to the point where (fans will ask), ‘Is it going to (have) Pat Mahomes?’

“Those things count now.”