As you roused yourself from the stupor induced by the lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time, you surely saw the news: Super Bowl LIII recorded its worst ratings in a decade. And, being a good sports fan in 2019, you may have been compelled to devise some sort of declaration based on this news, something like:
• “People are sick of the NFL and are turning away from the game once and for all!”
• “The NFL has gotten too political and Real Football Fans are done with it!”
• “This proves that the ratings jumps from this past season were a mirage!”
• “The NFL is rigged, and everyone has caught on to the scam!”
You’re not alone! More than 3,000 of your fellow NFL fans weighed in on our story Monday! But friends, I urge you not to give these hot takes any breath and life, for two reasons. First, they’re all completely wrong. Second, and more importantly:
Super Bowl ratings have zero impact on you, your life or your experience as a football fan.
I’m serious. Unless you’re responsible for setting ad rates for the Super Bowl — and if you are, congrats on having the easiest job in sports — ratings will have no impact on your daily life. It’s not like the Super Bowl is some quirky teen-witch drama facing cancellation if ratings dip. You’re not going to have to sign a petition to keep the Super Bowl on the air. And, as the Ringer’s Bryan Curtis has noted on multiple occasions, there is absolutely no reason for you to care whether TV executives — in this case, CBS — would be excited by a more thrilling game than we saw Sunday night.
The only reason anyone cares about ratings is to weaponize them in a half-assed pro- or (more commonly) anti-NFL argument. Granted, in 2019 we’ll scrap over anything and wrangle it into some kind of argument involving President Donald Trump, but if you’re going to do that, bring some better weaponry to the table.
Here, let me sum up the Super Bowl ratings story for you in a few hundred words — or, really, just three — and you can get on with your life.
Why ratings declined
Ratings were down for the Super Bowl for one main reason: the New England Patriots.
America is flat-out sick of seeing the Pats in the Super Bowl. Yes, New England is great; Tom Brady has a perfect life, Rob Gronkowski is a party bro, Bill Belichick is a cranky genius, blah blah blah. We know this. We’ve known it for the past five freaking years, where the Patriots have played for a Lombardi in four of them. And it’s no coincidence that ratings have declined every year of that run.
There’s no mystery surrounding the Patriots, no drama, no compelling casual interest to anyone outside the Greater Boston area, just more of the same. It’s not that we don’t respect you, New England, it’s that we’re tired of you. If we tell you how great you are, will you go away?
A huge segment of the viewing audience watches the Super Bowl for the same reason they watch any reality TV — compelling storylines delivered with style and attitude. The Patriots bring none of that anymore, just a grim, humorless slog to the mountaintop, year after year. Again: yes, they’re an all-time great dynasty. But it’s a story we’ve all heard now six times before. It’s like cheering a clock for ticking.
(There’s also the segment of the audience that tunes in for only the commercials. Which is fine! But what’s fascinating is how every single year, everyone gripes that this year’s commercials are the worst ever … and yet, every year we come back, expecting this year’s batch of try-hard branding efforts to be, I don’t know … art? Anyway, back to the field.)
The Super Bowl is irrelevant to the regular season
There is absolutely zero connection between the Super Bowl’s ratings and the fate of the NFL as a whole. The Super Bowl exists apart from the season, as unconnected to the weekly Sunday grind as an “Avengers” movie is from the comic books that inspired it. Want proof? The best game of the regular season, the Rams-Chiefs instant classic on “Monday Night Football” (say, where were those Rams?) drew 16.6 million viewers. The biggest draw of the playoffs, Chiefs-Patriots in the AFC championship, boasted 53.9 million viewers.
Now consider that the Super Bowl draws in the 100 million viewer range, and you see the scope of what we’re talking about here. Football fans make up — at best — only half of the Super Bowl’s audience.
The game has zero effect on the regular-season ratings, and vice versa. Everyone outside Atlanta would judge Super Bowl LI, where the Patriots beat the Falcons in a thrilling comeback, to be one of the best Super Bowls of all time. Guess what happened in the season right after that game? Yep, the first ratings decline.
Plus, let’s detonate the idea that this has anything to do with politics or concerns about the league’s authenticity. Yes, yes, you and everyone you know might be boycotting the games, but you and everyone you know are an infinitesimal sum in the grand NFL viewing pool … and by all accounts, there has been no significant long-term impact — if, indeed, there ever was — on the NFL thanks to 2017’s presidentially fueled political firestorm.
(The exception, of course, is New Orleans, which legitimately did get screwed out of an opportunity to lock down a Super Bowl berth thanks to a terrible missed penalty, and responded by effectively boycotting the Super Bowl. Nice work, Big Easy. You made your point. Come 2019’s kickoff, though, it’ll be time to stop whining.)
The 2018 regular-season’s ratings were back up 5 percent overall, buoyed by young stars, thrilling plays, compelling games and huge offensive production. And hey, guess what this Super Bowl lacked?
Again, not that you need to care, but other factors play into the Super Bowl’s ratings decline. People are viewing games on their phones, which don’t show up on ratings scales. Plus, the game was hot garbage from any possible entertainment metric; spare me the “defensive shutdowns are good football” junk. Casual viewers — who, remember, make up literally half of the game’s audience — tap out when they’ve had enough of talking animals hawking chips and there’s nothing compelling on the field.
The king remains the king
Here’s the bottom line: The fact that any program can get near the 100 million-viewer mark these days is astonishing.
Seriously. Think about how many entertainment options you have now. How many shows are in your Netflix or Hulu queue? How many times have you scrolled through Facebook just today? The fact that people for whom football isn’t a way of life even remember to tune in at all is amazing in this era.
The NFL is doing fine, and the Super Bowl is the last American cultural behemoth still standing. Get more compelling (i.e. non-New England) teams in this game, and watch the ratings reverse course and trend right back upward. Assuming anything else is like assuming the sun shines brighter on you than anyone else.
Now, go forth and enjoy your February, and don’t think about Super Bowl ratings again for another 364 days.
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