Sunday’s Super Bowl was watched by just 91.6 million people on CBS, the lowest number of viewers for the game on traditional broadcast television since 2006. A total of 96.4 million people watched when other platforms — like the CBS All Access streaming service and mobile phone apps — were counted, the lowest number of total viewers since 2007.
Still, the Super Bowl will surely be the most watched television program of 2021, and the N.F.L. is expected to see a huge increase in television rights fees when it signs several new television distribution agreements over the next year.
After peaking at 114 million television viewers in 2015, television ratings for the Super Bowl have declined in five of the past six years. The 9 percent decline in television viewership from last year’s Super Bowl is roughly in line with season-long trends. N.F.L. games this season were watched by 7 percent fewer people than the season before.
Many of the necessary ingredients for a bonanza Super Bowl were present. The game featured an intriguing matchup between the two most popular quarterbacks in football, Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. The weather Sunday was freezing across much of the country, which traditionally drives people inside to be entertained by their televisions.
But the game itself failed to deliver, all but ending by the third quarter when the Buccaneers led, 31-9, with no fourth-quarter scoring or hint of a competitive game. Viewership is measured as the average of the audience watching at each minute of the game; the longer a game is competitive and viewers stay tuned in, the better.
The hype and marketing machine surrounding the game was also changed by the coronavirus pandemic. The N.F.L. credentialed about 4,000 fewer media members for the Super Bowl compared with last year, meaning fans saw less media live from the Super Bowl ahead of the game. Fans were discouraged from gathering for parties, and instead of staying home and watching alone, it seems many just did something else. Just 38 percent of all households with a television were tuned to the game, the lowest percentage since 1969, according to Nielsen.
The N.F.L. joins almost every other sport in seeing viewership declines over the past year. The pandemic shut down the sporting world for months in the spring, and when games resumed they frequently lacked energy with few or no fans in the stands. Games were often played on unusual days or at unusual times, disrupting the traditional sports viewership calendar.
Viewership for the N.B.A. finals was down 49 percent and for the Stanley Cup finals was down 61 percent. It is not just sports. Compared to this time last year, viewership of all broadcast television — CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox — is down 20 percent during prime time. In that context, a 7 percent season drop and a 9 percent Super Bowl drop is a comparatively decent showing for the N.F.L.
Importantly, it also won’t slow down the N.F.L.’s march toward lucrative new television contracts. All indications — including deals made by other leagues and the competitive demand among networks and streaming services — suggest that the league will sign new agreements over the next year with a significant increase in average annual value.
Even in a world of fractured viewership that is quickly moving toward streaming, the N.F.L. remains king. Of the 100 most viewed television programs in 2020, 76 were N.F.L. games, according to Mike Mulvihill, an executive at Fox Sports. And while the 38 percent of households tuned to the game was a modern day low for the Super Bowl, the last time that number was beat by anything other than an N.F.L. game was the 1994 Winter Olympics, according to the website Sports Media Watch, when the figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding competed amid the scandal of Harding’s involvement in an attack on Kerrigan.
The N.F.L. could become the king of streaming, too. According to CBS the Super Bowl averaged 5.7 million viewers streaming the game, 68 percent more than last year.