NFL TV ratings declines in the regular season, capped off by
a cumulative 16% drop in viewership for the two league championship games last
week, have led to speculation by some that Super Bowl viewership may drop for
the first time in seven years.
"I think it doesn't
bode well for another record Super Bowl audience; nothing lasts forever," says
Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media.
But Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman, believes the Super
Bowl isn't any other game; it's an event that each year has multiple story lines
that help bring in the massive audience beyond just the avid fans tuning in to
watch their team. This year, he expects, won't be any different.
"The playoff ratings will have no effect at all on the Super
Bowl," McManus says. "We'll get a large base audience and more tune-in because
of the story line of the Harbaugh brothers. [For those who somehow haven't
heard: Jim is head coach of the NFC champ San Francisco 49ers and John is head
coach of the AFC's Baltimore Ravens.] Whether the audience stays the entire
game will be determined by how close the score is. The last several Super Bowls
have been close games. If the action is as good as it's been the past few
years, we'll be in for a good day. If it's a blowout, fans will leave."
Despite the debate created by the regular- and postseason
ratings declines so far, there are many reasons to believe the Super Bowl will
still draw another record audience.
First, regular season TV ratings for the NFL were not down
that much when looking at the large number of viewers and overall 18-49
ratings. Nielsen data shows NFL viewership on NBC (an average 21.4 million per
telecast) and on Fox (19.8 million) was down only 1% for each network. NBC's
8.2 18-49 demo rating was down only 2% while Fox's 7.0 was down 4%. CBS'
viewership (17.7 million) was down 4% and its 6.1 demo rating was down 7%. On
cable, ESPN's viewership (12.8 million) was down 3% and its 18-49 demo rating
(5.1) was down 6%. The percentages of decline were not that significant, media
buyers say, when looking at the number of viewers per telecast each network
drew throughout the season.
A look at cumulative regular season ratings for the five TV
rights-holders, including NFL Network, shows that viewership was down 5% and
18-49 ratings were down 6%.
Media buyers still believe in the NFL as prime content for their
clients and realize that ratings can't keep going up forever.
"Sports in general is still the safest bet on television,"
says Dave Campanelli, senior VP and director of national television at Horizon
Media. "Viewership will trend up or down slightly from year to year but sports
as a whole delivers consistent, strong ratings week-to-week and year-to-year.
The NFL is a prime example of that and it's not going to change anytime soon.
Even if viewership declines a bit, it won't diminish its value as an ad
Kevin Collins, senior VP, director of national broadcast at
Initiative, adds, "The Super Bowl is the No. 1 sporting event on television. It's
actually the No. 1 event on television each year. It's more than a game. It's
an event that cuts across sports and pop culture. Is this year's game the ideal
matchup or would it have been better if it were San Francisco vs. New England
with [Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady? But Ray Lewis [the Ravens future Hall of
Fame linebacker, who is retiring after the Super Bowl] is a good story. CBS
will promote the game on all of its primetime shows, which get big audiences.
Plus, it's one of the only telecasts where almost every viewer watches the
Why do media buyers believe the more recent playoff ratings
fall-off from last season will not negatively impact Super Bowl viewership?
"It's impossible to say why specifically playoff ratings
were down," Campanelli says. "It could be a lot of different factors. Having no
New York team in the playoffs definitely didn't help, but historically, NFL
playoffs have been pretty immune to that. Some of it could have been due to
Patriots fatigue and having the same two teams in the AFC championship game as
last year probably didn't help ratings either. And Atlanta [which lost to San
Francisco in the NFC Championship game] isn't a team with a strong national
following. However, while ratings were off, viewership was still substantial."
Initiative's Collins also points out that last year's NFC
championship game between the New York Giants and the 49ers went into overtime,
not only keeping audience throughout the game but drawing new viewers as time
"This year's NFC championship game seemed to be a blowout
early and a lot of viewers could have tuned out," Collins adds.
Even if Super Bowl viewership is down a bit, Campanelli
says, "For me, that's no concern. There is still nothing like it as a TV event
for many, many reasons."
If viewership is down, are buyers who paid in the $4 million
range per 30-second commercial unit protected with ratings guarantees? Insiders
at CBS say the network did not offer ratings guarantees for the Super Bowl
telecast, which was confirmed by a number of media buyers who did not want to
speak for attribution for this story.
In general, buyers say that while the price of a Super Bowl
spot is steep, reaching an audience of more than 100 million means getting
pretty solid mass reach for their clients. If viewership does not reach the
111.3 million it did for last year's Super Bowl, and happens to decline by a
few million, it's not going to really matter.
One buyer says "a 2% decline won't matter much, but if it's
a 10% decline then you may see some agencies trying to get CBS to give them
back something. In that case, if it is an advertiser who bought only one unit,
the network will probably do nothing. But if it is a blue chip advertiser with
several units in the game and who advertises every year, then I'd bet that CBS
would be more accommodating to find a way to compensate or appease that
advertiser. From a relationship point of view, I would think CBS would not want
to alienate its major advertisers."
Adds another buyer, "I'd find it hard to believe that
multi-unit advertisers like Anheuser-Busch or Pepsi wouldn't get some ratings
Where would buyers want make-goods from CBS? Some said in
the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship tournament telecasts, while others said
perhaps in next season's regular NFL telecasts.
CBS did not want to comment on its Super Bowl ad sales policy.
Although it hasn't happened for seven years, a decline in
Super Bowl ratings would not be an anomaly. Among the previous 46 Super Bowl
telecasts, ratings have gone down from year-to-year 12 times. According to
Nielsen Media Research data, the last decline came in the 2005 Super Bowl on
Fox between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Patriots. That game drew 86 million
viewers, 3.7 million fewer than the 2004 Super Bowl between the Carolina
Panthers and the Patriots. But you can't blame the market size in that one: Philadelphia
is a larger market than any city in North Carolina.
The most viewers a Super Bowl lost year-to-year was in 1981 when the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Oakland Raiders drew 68.2 million, a decline of eight million from the 1980 Super Bowl when the Los Angeles Rams vs. Pittsburgh Steelers game drew 76.2 million viewers.
A decline of eight
million for this year's Super Bowl would knock down viewership to about 103
million -- which is still a huge chunk of audience.
If viewership were to go down, would that mean a decrease in
the cost per 30 charged by Fox for next year's Super Bowl commercials?
"I doubt it, unless there is a huge drop-off," says one
media buyer. "And even then, you're more likely to see a leveling off of pricing,
or a smaller uptick in unit cost rather than a decline."
Initiative's Collins adds, "as long as the
demand is there, prices will continue to go up. If a network knows it can sell out
the Super Bowl, it is never going to cut back on pricing."