MINNEAPOLIS — A compelling, high-scoring game between teams from major markets that isn’t decided until the final couple of minutes is what television executives dream of when they pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl.
That was exactly what NBC got Sunday night, and while the network was rewarded with by far the largest television audience since last year’s Super Bowl, even the season’s biggest game was not entirely immune from the ratings drop that has afflicted the NFL over the past two seasons.
NBC said 103.4 million viewers watched the Super Bowl on television — 106 million if digital streaming is included — making it the 10th most watched program in television history. Last year, 111.3 million viewers saw New England’s comeback victory over Atlanta on TV; the viewership Sunday was the lowest for a Super Bowl since 98.7 million people watched Super Bowl XLIII between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals in 2009.
The actual broadcast of the game was stellar, aside from Justin Timberlake’s critically panned halftime performance and a brief blackout during a second-quarter commercial break that NBC blamed on an “equipment failure.”
NBC needed a big Super Bowl win in the worst way, and, depending upon your perspective, they might have achieved it. The 7 percent ratings decline from last year’s Super Bowl was less than the drop for its flagship “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts, which fell 11 percent this season.
Advertising revenue dropped across the NFL, and networks were forced to give away free commercials to advertisers because of missed ratings guarantees. NBC also lost money televising “Thursday Night Football” the past two seasons, leading them to submit a low bid to retain the rights. Fox won the bidding to show it for the next five seasons.
NBC said it expected $500 million in advertising revenue from the Super Bowl, where commercials were sold for about $5 million for each 30-second time slot.
But the importance of this Super Bowl to NBC went beyond ratings and any revenue it took directly from ad sales. The Winter Olympics are coming — the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is Friday, and the Games end Feb. 25 — and NBC is the first network to broadcast the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in the same year since CBS did so in 1992.
The network persuaded many advertisers to buy package deals of commercial time during both the Super Bowl and Olympics, and, as you might have noticed (and then noticed again and again), NBC used the Super Bowl as a giant platform to promote the Games.
The network knows it has to educate many American viewers. Pyeongchang, not exactly a familiar location, is also in an unfavorable time zone for NBC, 14 hours ahead of the East Coast. NBC used its captive Super Bowl audience to try to excite people about some of the athletes and events they will see over the next three weeks.
The network’s pregame show featured almost as much talk about the Olympics as it did for football, and a 60-second ad featuring U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn aired during halftime.
One familiar face will be absent from his usual perch at the Games: Bob Costas, who has been the prime-time host of every NBC Olympic broadcast since the Barcelona Games in 1992. The network lured Mike Tirico away from ESPN in 2016 as Costas’ long-term replacement, and last year decided he would be the face of the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Costas was still expected to host Super Bowl coverage with Tirico already in South Korea, however, but that job instead went to Dan Patrick and Liam McHugh. Costas told SportsBusiness Journal last month that he has “long had ambivalent feelings about football” and that the game should be hosted by someone who is “more enthusiastic” about the sport.
Costas has indeed been vocal in recent years about his discomfort with the connection between playing football and head trauma. Those concerns were borne out in stark fashion during the Super Bowl, when Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks was ruled out of the game after suffering a brutal, but legal, helmet-to-helmet hit in the second quarter.
While concerns about concussions are most likely one of the factors that have led to the NFL’s regular season ratings decline, the fact that the Super Bowl viewership drop was less severe than the regular season decrease drives home the fact that the NFL’s problem is the frequency with which hard-core fans watch rather than casual fans turning off the television.
According to Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ head of research and planning, while total NFL viewership has dropped 19 percent over the past two seasons, the league’s reach — meaning the total number of people watching some part of a game — has declined just 4 percent.
People are watching less football, but they still tune in for the big events.