All eyes on Super Bowl ratings

When Super Bowl LII kicks off Sunday with the New England Patriots facing the Philadelphia Eagles, there will be more on the line than the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

When Super Bowl LII kicks off Sunday with the New England Patriots facing the Philadelphia Eagles, there will be more on the line than the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

A season of turmoil and changing viewer habits has chipped away at what has long been the most durable TV franchise. As the league's marquee event, the Super Bowl always has been bigger than football, drawing non-fans who are partying with friends and watching the big-budget, celebrity-studded commercials priced at $5 million per 30 seconds that will be teased online and presented to an audience of more than 100 million viewers. Spending on Super Bowl ads has surged 35 percent in the last decade.

But this year the Super Bowl will be a test of whether the nearly 10 percent decline in viewership during the regular season - the second consecutive significant ratings drop - is a blip or marks a true turning point in the public's attitude toward pro football.

The league has confronted myriad challenges, including fan anger toward players kneeling during the national anthem, injuries and the long-term effects of concussions, as well as lengthy games in an age when young viewers prefer sports highlights on their phones.

"There was some expectation after last season's ratings drop that this season they would stabilize," said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of national broadcast for the media services firm Mindshare. "They didn't, obviously. I think there is no primary cause. It's a lot of different causes and it's definitely concerning to the NFL and their broadcast partners ... It's beginning to feel like a cultural shift."


The audience shortfall took a toll on TV ad revenue, as spending on the NFL was down 1.2 percent to $2.42 billion during the regular season, according to Standard Media Index data.

The mammoth Super Bowl audience has declined slightly in the last two games, which is not terribly meaningful for an event that delivered more than 111 million viewers. A drop of 6 percent or more, however, "starts ringing bells," Maltby said, because it would indicate that some of the casual viewers who have watched past Super Bowls are fleeing, too.

Adam Schwartz, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media, which bought time for several advertisers in the game, also believes this year's event will be a moment of truth for the public's perception of the NFL. He expects the audience level for Super Bowl LII to drop around 5 percent from last year.

He cites the continued fragmentation in the TV landscape where more viewers are getting their entertainment online and perhaps some fatigue with the Patriots, who are playing for the third time in the past four years. But a double-digit audience decline would be a sign that the NFL's problems go deeper than the disgruntled fan.

"That would certainly scare me," Schwartz said. "That would tell you that people are done with the NFL. This is 'The Game.' It's a national holiday. If you're seeing a drastic decline there, that's going to be telling."

Any nervousness about the NFL did not show up in the strong market for Super Bowl ads. NBC's telecast is nearly sold out, with a handful of commercials available as of late last week. The game is the center of an advertising bonanza for the network, which says it will take in $500 million in revenue for programming for the entire day, from pregame festivities to a special postgame episode of its hottest prime-time program, "This Is Us." That figure equals the amount that Fox took in last year when it carried Super Bowl LI.

Advertisers are still lining up because ratings for the game have been resilient, especially compared with the decline in the rest of the TV industry.

Over the last 10 years, the audience for the Super Bowl has grown from 93.2 million in 2007 to 111.3 million in 2016. Last year's telecast on Fox was down less than 3 percent from the all-time high in 2015, when 114.4 million viewers watched on NBC.


While a big decline in the Super Bowl audience this year would be a bad sign for the NFL, the game will still be the largest platform for advertisers by far. ABC's telecast of the Oscars is typically the second most-watched event of the year. The 2017 ceremony averaged 32.9 million viewers last year, close to its all-time low.

"Even if the game loses 10 percent of its audience, everything else pales in comparison," Maltby said. "The relative gap between the Super Bowl and anything else is humongous, and because the Super Bowl has been stable or growing in recent years that gap widened while everything else fell off."

Added Schwartz: "It's still regarded in the ad community as the gold standard to get your word out."

Not only is the audience for the Super Bowl massive, but a significant portion shows up to watch the commercials in an age when viewers are otherwise avoiding them. Social media, where ads are teased and previewed before the game and then shared afterward, have enhanced the value of a Super Bowl buy.

"It really isn't about the commercial per se but more of an experience," said David Angelo, chairman of ad agency David & Goliath. "It's an experience that starts prior to the Super Bowl, continues the day of and then a few weeks after. It's like telling a great story. So you can get people engaged. We believe there is a great value in that."

Conversation is a key part of the Super Bowl ad game, even if it means stirring controversy. Last year, Pennsylvania-based building supply company 84 Lumber rose out of relative obscurity with its series of commercials depicting a migrant family crossing into the U.S. - a response to President Trump's stated goal of building a border wall and having Mexico pay for it. Fox rejected the final spot's pro-immigration message, and the company had to run it online. Networks that carry the Super Bowl are vigilant about keeping advocacy messages out of the game.

EAGLES (15-3) VS. PATRIOTS (15-3)

When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday


Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

Line: Patriots by 4

Fast fact: The Patriots will wear home white jerseys; teams are 12-1 wearing white in the past 13 Super Bowls

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