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You knew something was up when CBS didn’t release its preliminary Super Bowl ratings on Monday afternoon as usual.
The Super Bowl is always the most-watched television event of any year, so each year it’s a matter of whether the numbers will match the prior year ... and what to say in the event they don’t. When the numbers didn’t show up, veteran media observers speculated that the league and CBS were doing all they could to spin bad news into good.
As it turns out, that’s pretty much what happened. CBS’s Tuesday morning press release announcing the viewership employed a symphony of creative language and selective statistics, referencing a “total audience” of 96.4 million viewers, which includes both online and TV viewers. (Most releases openly tout the number of TV viewers, then add online over the top of that.)
Sports Business Journal reported that the actual number of viewers who tuned into CBS was 91.629 million, a 9 percent drop from last season’s 100.45 million and the lowest TV viewership since 2006 (Steelers over Seahawks). This game and Super Bowl LIII (Patriots over Rams, 98.48 million) were the only games since 2009 not to crack nine-figure TV viewership marks.
This decline was obvious from the early returns. Only nine of the top 44 markets showed increases over 2020’s game. Top markets were, unsurprisingly, Kansas City, Boston and Tampa Bay.
The numbers came even though this was one of the most anticipated matchups in Super Bowl history, with the legendary Tom Brady challenging the defending champion and would-be GOAT Patrick Mahomes. A snowstorm packed much of the country inside, and the pandemic has cut into gatherings at Super Bowl parties and sports bars. That seemed to portend good news for viewership totals.
But the game was a blowout — the second-largest for a Super Bowl in 18 years, as CBS noted in its release — with Kansas City looking overmatched on both sides of the ball. That doesn’t give casual fans much incentive to stick around.
Most analysts note that the NFL is a league whose ratings are driven by matchups, which is why a Brady-Drew Brees or a Mahomes-Aaron Rodgers regular season game draws so much more than, say, Carolina-Jacksonville. The array of entertainment options now available is also a significant downward driver; casual fans now have so much more to watch than the NFL.
Critics of the NFL claim that the league’s move toward social justice has had a negative impact on its ratings. While it’s indisputable that some fans turned their back on the league, a direct correlation to a major ratings decline is more suspect, given the fluctuations in week-to-week ratings depending on matchups.
There is good news for the league. Even if the glass is half full, it’s a larger glass than any other. The NFL remains the broadcast leader in America, taking the largest share of a smaller pie. It’s also worth noting that online viewership averaged 5.7 million viewers per minute, the most live-streamed NFL game ever and up nearly two-thirds from last year’s Super Bowl.
Overall, the 9 percent decline in Super Bowl ratings is in line with the league’s 7 percent decline over the course of the season. The NFL is still far and away the nation’s broadcast leader, but the endless upward trajectory has come to an end.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Super Bowl LV from Yahoo Sports: