Super Bowl Audience Plunges to Lowest Mark in Over a Decade

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Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast on CBS attracted an audience of 96.4 million TV and digital viewers, falling to the lowest mark in over a decade.

The championship, featuring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ lopsided 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, marked a setback for the National Football League, which played many of its games in empty stadiums this season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year’s broadcast on Fox drew an audience of 102 million, or 113 million with out-of-home viewing included. CBS’s audience of 96.4 million included people watching outside their homes.

The 15% decline from last year made it the fewest people to watch the big game since 2007, when 93.2 million TV viewers tuned in to see the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears.

Regularly the most-watched TV event, the Super Bowl is viewed as a proxy for the popularity of live sports, especially in an era when millions of viewers are dropping cable for streaming services. It’s also an important vehicle for advertisers, who spend as much as $5.5 million for a 30-second spot so they can reach a large audience. Last year’s broadcast generated almost $450 million in ad sales, not counting pre- and postgame coverage.

The score is often a factor in how many viewers tune in and how long they watch -- and the Chiefs were never really in contention. Last year’s game, in which Kansas City beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20, was close until the final minutes, helping lift the audience from the year before.

The 2019 game, a low-scoring affair between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, drew a total viewership of 100.7 million, excluding out-of-home watching. The record of 114.4 million on that basis was set in 2015.

The Covid-19 pandemic upended major sports leagues and their broadcast partners over the past year, forcing them to remake schedules and postpone games. Because of scheduling changes, different leagues’ seasons overlapped more than usual, meaning they had to compete more frequently for the same viewers.

But football playoffs proved resilient. The NFL’s conference finals in late January averaged 44.3 million viewers per game, a 3% increase from a year earlier.

The Super Bowl is usually a particularly social event, however, and the discouragement of viewing parties this year probably led to fewer casual viewers tuning in. Closings or capacity restrictions at restaurants and bars suppressed the out-of-home audience.

The league sold only 14,500 tickets for Sunday’s game in Tampa, Florida, in addition to welcoming 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers for free. Raymond James Stadium can seat as many as 75,000 fans, so cardboard cutouts were used to fill some of the empty seats.

Super Bowl fans usually respond to good personal stories, although that factor didn’t boost viewership this year. The game featured Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, 25, seeking his second-straight Super Bowl win. He faced off against veteran superstar Tom Brady, 43, playing in his 10th NFL championship game and looking for a record seventh win.

The game is carried by a different broadcast network each year, with ViacomCBS Inc.’s CBS, Comcast Corp.’s NBC and Fox Corp.’s Fox splitting the TV rights.

CBS’s Super Bowl coverage was its most extensive ever, including seven hours of pregame programming starting at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. This season was particularly important for broadcasters because many are now negotiating renewals of their media contracts with the league.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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