Ken McEvoy Is the Super Bowl worth all the fuss?
Super Bowl LIII (53) occurs on Sunday, Feb. 3, in Atlanta, Georgia., home of the Falcons. The stadium opened in August 2017, cost $1.6 billion to build, and holds 75,000 people. This round the Los Angeles Rams play the New England Patriots. It should be quite a showcase.
The huge stadium attendance pales compared with the TV audience, where all the marketing money is targeted. This is the biggest single televised annual event held in the United States, last year drawing 103.4 million viewers. But something is happening. 2017 drew 111.3 million viewers, 111.9 in 2016, and 114.4 million in 2015. Has television viewership peaked? Why? Have the games become boring? Do the competing teams have poor followings? Are there other reasons to watching or not besides the game itself?
Consider the level of competition in Super Bowls. The past five saw an average 13.4 points separating winners from losers, the largest margin being 35 points. The five years before that, the average margin was 6.2 points, with the largest ever being 45 points in Super Bowl XXIV (24), when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Denver Broncos.
Why then all the fuss about the Super Bowl? Well, football is popular. In January 2018, Gallup reported that 37 percent surveyed said football is their favorite sport to watch, the most popular sport in the United States by far, while baseball suffered its lowest popularity ever recorded, at 9 percent. Basketball is also popular, and shares with baseball an advantage (lots of games!) and maybe a disadvantage (too many games?). The number of games affects attendance, ticket prices, concession sales, and television viewership and commercial revenue. Do more games lessen the urgency to watch on television? The NFL has tried to increase ad revenue of televised games by increasing the number of days per week a game is broadcast, adding one day at a time. Gallup has since reported regular season games slipping in TV popularity from its peak of 43 percent in 2006. Does this indicate more games don’t mean more popularly?
Could Super Bowl interest be about something else — the halftime show? Marching bands are gone. Now, halftime is be star-studded. This year Maroon 5 headlines, a pop/rock band, winner of Grammys, American Music, People’s Choice, Billboard Music, and Teen Choice Awards. Yet Maroon 5 does not have the same status as previous headliners such as ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, or Michael Jackson, or even other recent performers such as Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga. Why? Variety reported in December that due to the recent players’ protests, many top selling artists are now avoiding the halftime show. Plus, Super Bowl half-time is only 30 minutes long. Lots of extravaganza, but is it a real show? Is 30 minutes enough for all the fuss?
Yet pro football TV ad revenue is up. The Observer reported in December that NFL Sunday games revenue are up 11 percent, while overall football ratings have increased by 5 percent. Ad revenue is up, but Super Bowl viewership has dropped. More games are televised, while less people say football is their favorite sport. Confused? Now consider that Super Bowl ad revenue is also up. Kantar Media reported a total of $414 million in Super Bowl ad revenue in 2018, generated by 49 minutes of commercial ad time. Actual game time is 60 minutes. Viewers hate commercials, but will watch 49 minutes of Super Bowl commercials. Or will they?
Commercials may be the oddest variable in Super Bowl viewership. Viewers typically do anything to avoid commercials, except for the Super Bowl. Attracted by the huge one-time audience, more money is invested in Super Bowl commercials than for any other single event. In 2019 one 30-second spot will cost more than $5 million. Part of the reason is that the Super Bowl is a one-day event. Some of the most iconic TV commercials were first aired during a Super Bowl. The Apple Macintosh “1984” ad (Super Bowl XVlll), produced for $900,000 (more than $2 million today, compared to a typical $450,000) by future Academy Award winner Ridley Scott may be the best example. Another is Mean Joe Green’s 1979 “Hey Kid, Catch” Coca Cola ad. Introduced in October 1979 on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” it later exploded on Super Bowl XIV (14). Has such success raised audience expectations too high?
Perhaps what matters is the time of year the Super Bowl is played. Super Bowl is party time, an event watched by groups at parties, sometimes by viewers who don’t even know which teams are playing. It’s played in early February, cold and dismal in much of the country. A party may be just what’s needed. It’s long past New Year’s, not yet Valentine’s or St. Patrick’s Day, and college basketball’s March Madness seems distant. The Super Bowl offers an oasis in the middle of a drought. Maybe that’s it’s secret, it’s something to watch when there’s nothing watch. And if the ads are entertaining enough, the halftime show is not too ridiculous, the beer is cold and the wings are hot, does anyone care?
Kevin McEvoy, PhD is an assistant professor in Residence in Marketing at UConn Stamford. He has won many teaching awards and was named a Teaching Scholar by UConn’s Institute of Teaching and Learning in 2010.