The ‘greatest show on Earth’ rolls into Houston, Texas this Sunday (5th February) as the New England Patriots face the Atlanta Falcons in Superbowl 51. The event will bookend what has been a difficult season commercially for the NFL, off the back of 18 months of scandals and a fall in viewership of 8% for its regular season. Can the NFL’s golden goose buck what is becoming an emerging trend for the world’s richest sports league and calm fears that the sports ratings bubble is fit to burst?
The NFL, along with the Premier League, is the richest sports league in the world. Both rights holders have reached this lofty perch largely through the revenue garnered from television rights deals with broadcasters. The Premier League’s much publicised 5-year deal with Sky Sports and BT Sports, which kicked in at the start of this season, is worth £5bn to the league. The NFL’s nine-year deal, with broadcasters Fox, CBS, NBC, and ESPN reportedly earns the league $5bn each year, meaning over the lifetime of the deal the league earns $45bn from broadcast rights alone.
These deals, both large increases on the previous iterations with broadcasters, have been put forward as evidence of the bullet-proof nature of live sports ratings. NFL and Premier League games, it is argued, offer reliable and prolonged access to what is a difficult and lucrative market to reach.
This season, however, has seen a challenge to this conventional wisdom. Sky Sports viewing figures for the Premier League were down 19% to October of 2016 and ESPN reported that regular season figures for the NFL were down 8% from last year.
While the slump in NFL ratings was in part attributable to the American Presidential Election campaign in the autumn of 2016, the poor quality of games and the weight of 18 months of various scandals also played a large part in the deflated feeling around the league this season.
Various commentators have seized on the slump in viewership for these two behemoths and asked if this is the beginning of the end for the sports broadcast rights bubble. With attention spans dwindling, distractions increasing and the cost of subscribing to the necessary networks to access these games proving prohibitive to many, are we preparing for a bust after the extended boom for rights holders to date?
In this atmosphere of declining viewership, as well as falling subscriptions to sports networks, the Superbowl appears to be the golden goose that cannot stop laying eggs.
Much like New England’s legendary quarter back, Tom Brady (who this Sunday will make his 7th appearance on American sport’s biggest stage), the Superbowl simply delivers when it is called upon.
19 of the 20 most watched television events in American history have been Superbowls (the other was the final episode of M*A*S*H), with the highest rating of these, Superbowl 49 in 2015, pulling in 115.2m viewers as per Nielsen.
It may be worth sponsors’ involvement in the NFL solely for this one game alone, such is the cultural significance attached to it, for sports fans and far beyond. In an event where a 30 second ad spot costs $5m there really is nothing which can come close to matching it.
In a UK and Irish context, no Premier League game has the same significance, no single European Championship game or World Cup match can be this planned out in advance. Its only equal (in relative terms) is the Late Late Toy Show. In America, regardless of who you are or what your interests are, you watch the Superbowl. In Ireland, the same can be said of the Late Late Toy Show.
However, is even the most reliable, durable, and desirable sporting broadcast property of them all showing signs of fatigue?
While Superbowl 50 boasted comfortably the largest US television audience of 2016, beating all three presidential debates in the process, it represented a decrease in viewership from the previous two years. Ranking third in the list of most watched US television events in history, and pulling in an audience of 111.9m viewers, still means that Superbowl 50 was a huge success.
However, it bucked the established trend which saw year on year growth in viewing figures every year bar one since 2008. In what was hyped as the biggest Superbowl of all time, viewing figures fell.
While viewing figures in its key market fell, the NFL’s growing popularity in Ireland was underlined by a five-fold increase in the average number of viewers for Superbowl 50 across Sky Sports and BBC2 (43,040) compared to the previous year, when the game was shown on Sky and Channel 4.
Not only did the number of people tuning into the event in America fall, so too did the numbers talking about it online. While we might expect that year-on-year social media activity for such events should only be trending in one direction, Superbowl 50 generated significantly less posts on Facebook and Twitter than the previous year. In Facebook’s case, posts related to the Superbowl were down 25% from the previous year, while Twitter saw a 33% decrease.
On its own, last year could be dismissed as an outlier. However, pair it with the decrease in the regular season viewership for this season and it approaches a pattern.
When a team is having a rough patch during a game, it falls to the quarter back to make some safe plays and lead his troops to calmer waters. Much the same will be expected of Superbowl 51 this Sunday, as the NFL and broadcast networks will hope that the game will deliver in a commercial sense, putting a positive spin on what has been a difficult year for all involved. It may be overstating it slightly, but the longer-term outlook of the NFL’s TV rights deals could well be set this Sunday in Houston.