February 11, 2021

What Disappointing Super Bowl Ratings Mean for the World of Media

As Tom Brady locked up his unprecedented seventh Super Bowl victory on Sunday, sparking conversations about his place in NFL history, another important milestone was happening behind the scenes. One that will arguably have more impact on the future of the event than any one player ever could.

After an uncharacteristic delay, Nielsen released the ratings for this year’s game on Tuesday, and the results were telling. In short, the ratings for the Super Bowl this year are the worst they’ve been since Super Bowl III in 1969. You read that right. Gaudy viewership numbers have been hiding the fact that the actual ratings for the event have been declining consistently for the past five years. Sure, the game drew an average TV audience of nearly 92 million people – an astronomical audience by any measure. However, that number topped 114 million in 2015 and has been tumbling ever since. This year’s numbers represent a 10% decline year-over-year and a 20% decline from the 2015 peak.

So what, you might say? The last year has been an anomaly in so many ways, so we should refrain from drawing sweeping conclusions, right? Before we chalk all of this up to the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s take a look at some other sports ratings from the past year:

Clearly, some of this was due to the scheduling complications brought by a global pandemic, but there’s more going on here. Live sports has long been the last bastion of appointment TV, but these sports (now including the marquis sporting event in the United States) have been showing declines in ratings for some time. The craziness of 2020 just accelerated a trend that has been coming for years, and it’s not just about live sports. Look at eMarketer’s report for age cohorts and time spent watching TV:



This shift has changed the way the marketing world views buying TV and most everything else. That’s been a slow burn, but 2020 had its milestone moments, perhaps most notably when P&G’s Chief Brand Officer and noted iconoclast Mark Pritchard, announced that his company and their billions in TV spend wouldn’t be participating in the fall TV Upfronts.

This certainly doesn’t mean that TV is dead or that live sports are dead. It does mean that consumers and marketers are looking at them very differently. Pay TV, which lost another 10 million subscribers in 2020, will continue to decline. Younger cohorts are flocking to formats where marketing messages add value, rather than jarringly interrupting the larger experience. Their patience for outmoded forms of advertising is essentially nil.

Anyone who is trying to deliver content through a TV-like experience will need to adjust to these trends. That includes live sports events. As we’ve seen, even the biggest live event of the year is not immune.

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