Is The Super Bowl Ratings Decline As Significant As Conservative Media Is Making It Out To Be?

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Super Bowl LII featured two big-market teams in a high-scoring affair, the likes of which often provides higher excitement (and TV ratings).  The underdog Philadelphia Eagles vanquished Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the (extremely disliked) New England Patriots in a thrilling 41-33 finish that saw the game come down to a last-second hail-mary.

This was a marquee matchup with a storyline to boot – the Eagles, without their MVP-caliber quarterback and a number of other major injuries to key starters, were the true Philly “underdog” story, and one in which everyone wanted to cheer for against the hated Patriots, who had been punished for “cheating” infractions on several occasions.

This was borne out in the map of who the country was “rooting” for in the big game:

In short, the league could not have asked for a more preferable set of circumstances for its big game.  The NFL was gifted with a big-market contest and a storyline which created national interest, and the game itself was an offensive shootout, which often draws in more casual observers.

However, this did not show in the ratings, according to conservative media.  Super Bowl LII reached a “nine-year low” in ratings, according to Deadline Hollywood…

With 103.4 million watching, last night’s game on NBC from Minneapolis is down 7% from the total set of network eyeballs from the 2017 Super Bowl. A steeper fall than even the declining the stock market today, that’s the worst the Super Bowl has done since 2009 when Super Bowl XLIII scored 98.7 million viewers.

…with Fox News’s Sean Hannity blaming the ratings plunge on national anthem protests

The National Football League’s disastrous 2017 season concluded Sunday night; with television ratings dropping to an eight-year low after months of player protests took its toll on furious fans across the country.

…a sentiment which was echoed by many other conservative media groups:

Given that the NFL reached its all-time high Super Bowl audience of 114 million just three years ago, this data reflects a massive drop-off for the league that, among other things, coincides with a massive anthem protest movement that has helped fuel fan discontent.

The 103 million number for the Patriots-Eagles, also makes it a very real possibility that viewership for next year’s Super Bowl could dip below 100 million for the first time in nearly a decade.

It is an undisputable fact that NFL viewership is declining and the league has been struggling lately to maintain viewers.  But just how significant is the ratings drop in the Super Bowl, and how much does it have to do with NFL protests?

If you look at not just the recent Super Bowl viewership data, but the data going all the way back to Super Bowl I, it can be argued that the recent decline in viewers is just a correction in a long-term uptrend of viewers:

MOST-WATCHED PROGRAMS IN U.S. TELEVISION HISTORY
1. 114.4 Million – Super Bowl XLIX, NBC (Feb. 2015)
2. 112.2 Million – Super Bowl XLVIII, FOX (Feb. 2014)
3. 111.9 Million – Super Bowl 50, CBS (Feb. 2016)
4. 111.3 Million – Super Bowl XLVI, NBC (Feb. 2012)
5. 111.3 Million – Super Bowl LI, FOX (Feb. 2017)
6. 111.0 Million – Super Bowl XLV, FOX (Feb. 2011)
7. 108.7 Million – Super Bowl XLVII, CBS (Feb. 2013)
8. 106.5 Million – Super Bowl XLIV, CBS (Feb. 2010)
9. 106.0 Million – M.A.S.H. Finale, CBS (Feb. 1983)
10. 103.4 Million – Super Bowl LII, NBC (Feb. 2018)

And as I’ve noted in the past, the NFL is facing a great deal of problems, only one of which is national anthem protests, with the most major being an issue faced with all cable television and mainstream media – cord cutting:

They are included, but not limited to; cord cutting, excessive commercial breaks and TV timeouts, lack of accessibility, quality of play and the on-field product, and the aforementioned National Anthem protests.  Notably, cord cutting and accessibility are intertwined, as I have previously pointed out:

So a lot of those viewers who might put the game on TV on a slow Thursday night have decided that they would rather not pay for the option in the first place.  While a majority of these are likely the most fickle fans of all, who care little about sports, the NFL has made it increasingly difficult to view its product either with or without cable access (for instance, offering out-of-market games via DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket only).  The NFL’s own actions regarding viewership has certainly led cord-cutting to play a major role ratings decline.

Super Bowl ratings peaking in 2014-2016, and giving back some of the event’s “gains” is more likely to be attributed to cord-cutting than NFL protests.  Do not forget, the Super Bowl is more than a game in the US, it is an event.  Super Bowl parties and gatherings are extremely commonplace, and to truly attribute a decline in the event’s viewership to a “boycott” of the league, it would require conclusive data on bar revenues and grocer receipts, neither of which is included in conservative media’s claims.

Furthermore, while there may be a number of viewers still “boycotting” the NFL due to players kneeling for the anthem, the protests themselves have all but stopped…

Importantly, something else did not occur this weekend – National Anthem protests.  Having reached a “deal” with the NFL Player’s Association, the number of NFL protests has dropped sharply, and to my knowledge, no player conducted any form of Anthem protest whatsoever for the Divisional Playoffs – a far cry from near-constant kneeling and sitting which occurred earlier this season.

…and the Philadelphia Eagles had no players kneel, at all, all season long:

Not a single Eagles player sat or knelt during the national anthem, one of just seven teams with perfect non-kneeling records, in a season that saw 684 such incidents, according to a study released Thursday by Sports Pundit.

Any football “fan” who tuned out during the Super Bowl for the sake of “boycotting” the league was probably a fringe viewer whose interest in NFL football was likely very little, at absolute best.

And if you think the ratings decline is hurting the NFL’s Super Bowl revenue, or the network which picked up the event, think again:

NBC has largely sold out of Super Bowl ads, which reportedly fetched more than $5 million per 30-second spot. Comcast (CMCSA), NBC’s parent company, has said it projects about $500 million in total ad sales for the Big Game. That would set a new record for the amount of revenue generated in a single day by one company, NBC Sports Group Executive Vice President of Ad Sales Dan Lovinger told Adweek

The above chart only goes back to 2014, but if the data is filled in up until this year, it will mean that advertisement revenue from the Super Bowl will still reach an all-time peak, both in absolute and per-viewer terms.

Not what you would expect from a league that has supposedly had its fan base “decimated” by national anthem protests.

The NFL has indeed been facing a ratings decline from its recent peak.  Some of this year’s decline can undoubtedly be quantified by the regular season’s national anthem protests, and the corresponding conservative boycott of the league.  But attributing a decline in the ratings of the NFL’s marquee event is a conservative media hot take, built to fit their narrative, which has little (if any) factual evidence to corroborate it.

If Fox News, Breitbart, and conservative media wanted to put out a Super Bowl hot take, they should have just stuck to what they do best – mocking Elizabeth Warren.