Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes in action, Super Bowl, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida, February 7, 2021.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
To understand the big challenge facing American media, look at Super Bowl ratings over the past ten years.
This year’s game got 96.4 million viewers, the lowest rating since 2007. There are all sorts of theories about why the number was so low. The game wasn’t close. This season was weird because of the pandemic. Musical guest The Weeknd wasn’t much of a halftime draw.
But none of that gets to the meat of the issue. Here are Super Bowl ratings for18-to-49-year-olds — the prime demographic for advertisers — over the past ten years.
Some of the decline is related to the rise of streaming, which isn’t captured in Nielsen data (but will be in 2024). But not that much. About 5.7 million people streamed the Super Bowl this year, up from 3.4 million last year, according to The Streamable.
Forget the blowout game and weird halftime show. Whether it’s a thrilling Tom Brady comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, a magnificent Patrick Mahomes fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in 2020, or Brady against Mahomes this year, it doesn’t matter. Fewer people under 50 are watching every year.
Perhaps football isn’t as popular as it used to be. Maybe younger viewers are turned off by league’s handling of Colin Kaepernick or the concussions or the super-long games riddled with commercials.
But those arguments are less compelling when you look at 18-to-49 “Sunday Night Football” ratings, which have been remarkably steady in recent years, until this pandemic-fraught season.
A once-in-a-lifetime September and October, where all major sports were happening at the same time, may have pushed 2020’s “Sunday Night Football” ratings down. We’ll have to see if 2021 returns to 2019 levels.
But the previous three years show that there are plenty of hardcore football fans who were still tuning in each week.
This suggests the steady decline in Super Bowl ratings is not happening because there are fewer football fans each year. Rather, it’s because fewer casual fans and non-sports viewers are tuning in.
Simply put, The Super Bowl isn’t the event it once was.
That speaks to an essential change in American media, and it’s been noticeable for years. Think back to those “Game of Thrones” essays from a couple of years ago that pondered if it would be the last show Americans watched together.
Media is fractured. With so many possible choices about what to do at a given time — video games, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Snapchat, Disney+ — watching the Super Bowl may never be the cultural experience it once was.