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Was It Just a Bad Super Bowl Year or Is There Something More Going On?

We are all accustomed to hearing accolades about the success and amazing command the annual National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl has over the American viewing public. The official game score and on-the-field statistics often sideline news stories of far greater significance on Super Bowl Sunday. Geopolitical happenings, natural disasters, and perhaps even global famine must await a turn for the attention of media reporting. After all, customarily 100 million viewers turn on viewing devices to cheer, shout, and even shed a tear or two over the fate of a favorite NFL team. As a sport and entertainment event, the “big game” has become a big deal, even during a year when the pandemic tarnished the progress of just about everything and everyone else.

Optimistic projections for Super Bowl LV viewership promised an audience of 100 million viewers or more, a prognostication that saw little or no deviation from the previous year’s event performance. Was it a prediction too far, or is there something more unpredicted going on in the world’s biggest sporting event?

Super Bowl LV viewer ratings took a big downward decline, with the lowest ratings since 2007 and over 9 million fewer watchers than the previous year. The results were so surprising that some media outlets delayed reporting the statistics, providing them an opportunity to verify the numbers or at least create an acceptable menu of reasons for the decline. The game wasn’t competitive; the pandemic-shortened season impacted the fans’ enthusiasm; the half-time entertainment fell short of viewer expectations, and restrictions on the size of traditional Super Bowl parties turned potential viewers away, a reason supported by a pre-game survey that indicated 72% of Americans said they wouldn’t be attending a Super Bowl LV party.

Attempts to contain the bad news even included a silver lining. Super Bowl LV was the most live-streamed NFL game ever. Of course, the number of consumers turning to streaming for viewing everything else over the past year is setting records as well. It’s not that the NFL and advertisers should be panicking or planning for an era without the big event. After all, every business can and does experience a bad year. However, it may be time to investigate potential alternative causes to the decline and ask some probing questions. How critical are in-person gatherings to viewership and advertisers? What does the Super Bowl really mean in today’s culture? Is this a pastime that we’ve grown weary of celebrating? Is the 2021 metric one that advertisers need to consider when allocating marketing spend?

It’s not that there are fewer avid football fans watching the games but that there is a consistent and protracted decline in casual viewers. In the past, competitor networks suspended the running of first-time showings of popular entertainment series during the Super Bowl broadcast. Given a choice of watching reruns or the game live, many non-fans elected to capitulate, even if it was just to watch the commercials and the half-time show. With the popularity of streaming services on the rise, casual and non-fan viewership turned to alternatives to the “big game” and the sport in general. The 18 to 49-year-old demographic, a prime audience for advertisers, has been moving away from the game for nearly a decade. Turned-off by league conduct and the aggressive commercialization of the game, professional football’s fan-base is in decline.

Advertisers consistently struggle to justify the costs associated with advertising during the Super Bowl Game. This year, a 30-second advertisement was more than $5 million, an all-eggs-in-one-basket approach that deserved serious consideration, even for the most well-heeled marketer. In addition, the cultural turmoil in 2020 left many advertisers questioning the approach to super-game messaging. “Should they address social issues? Should they stay in their lane? Should they go out on a limb with something risky and memorable?”, asked Margot Bloomstein, principal of Appropriate. In the end, the results were mixed and somewhat benign, an indication that marketers continue to struggle with creating content that resonates with a divided populace while increasing brand popularity and awareness.

The generational attention-shift away from competitive sporting events will likely continue as fewer young people experience the intense, football mania that was once commonplace within households across America. While the Super Bowl continues to attract more than 50% of viewers on Super Bowl Sunday, advertisers need to consider the hypothesis that future Super Bowls may not be as popular with targeted consumers and may become a much less-valuable marketing play.