February 25, 2021

Revisiting Super Bowl LV

Thoughts on the Future of TV Sports

Although viewership numbers were the lowest since 2007, there were some bright spots for Super Bowl LV. It was the most live-streamed NFL game ever, and CBS All Access broke records in new subscriber sign-ups, number of streams, and time spent on the site. On the digital side, CBS Sports HQ set a viewership record, and Bleacher Report reported a 300% increase in engagements in its betting vertical.

How impactful are the viewership numbers from the 2021 Super Bowl broadcast? And what does it say about the future of TV sports?

The Super Bowl is Not a Broadcast, But (Usually) an Event
Of the top 20 most-viewed television broadcasts of all-time, the Super Bowl holds 19 slots. From 2010 to 2021, only two broadcasts saw less than 100 million viewers: 2019 (98.5 million) and now 2021 (91.6 million). Total viewership of Super Bowl LV was 96.4 million, down 4.8% from the previous years’ 101.3 million viewers, and down 15.7% from the most-viewed Super Bowl in 2015 (114.4 million).

There are a number of factors assigned blame for a bad TV turnout. The pandemic reduced the number of Super Bowl parties, which impacted the number of casual viewers to the game. This year’s event hosted two small-market teams (Tampa and KC). The commercials were subdued, the half-time show lacked the draw of recent performances, and the growth of streaming certainly impacted broadcast views.

Trends or Bad Luck?
So, which of these factors are truly responsible for lower TV turnout, and which are a product of bad luck versus poor planning?

  • The Pandemic – By February 2022, the pandemic should be much less of a factor in our lives and, if anything, next year’s Super Bowl will be a celebration of our regained freedom to congregate. As far as the NFL is concerned, the pandemic was most certainly a large helping of BAD LUCK.
  • Small-Market Teams – The Super Bowl is a national event for even the most casual or disinterested viewers. Moreover, some of the most-viewed Super Bowls in history featured smaller-market teams. SPIN
  • Subdued Commercials – There are many casual fans that watch the Super Bowl more for the commercials than for the game itself, and the 2021 crop of commercials were rightfully subdued due to the seriousness of these times. A 2022 post-pandemic Super Bowl will also see a return of entertaining commercials. BAD LUCK
  • Half-Time Show – This is no slight to the Weeknd, but he doesn’t have the pull of Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Prince, or Michael Jackson (few do), and certainly he was not much of draw for the casual fan who watches the game for the half-time excitement. POOR PLANNING
  • Non-Competitive Game – It is true that the game was not competitive from the start, but the reality is that many past Super Bowls were not competitive at all and still garnered good ratings. NEUTRAL
  • Streaming – As TDG Members knew a decade ago, the shift from broadcast to streaming is very real, and its impact continues to be far-reaching. If the Super Bowl game was so poor, why then did digital break all-time records including engagements, minute hours, and sign ups? TREND WITH NO END

The Super Bowl’s inability to draw 100-million viewers this year is undoubtedly due to a combination bad luck and meta-trends beyond the League’s control. However, the impact of poor planning should not be dismissed.

Winners and Losers

NFL – Poor ratings aside, the NFL has a very lucrative future, with rumors now circulating that the League is asking for a 100% increase in TV rights fees. It will be interesting to see which, if any, companies are willing to bite.

Streaming Platforms/Tech-Media Firms – Based on the latest ratings, I am sure that some of the tech giants such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook will be involved in the bidding, especially for streaming rights. As well, platform OEMs like Roku (which had a 41% share of Super Bowl “streaming attempts”) proved to viewers they could provide a broadcast-like live sports experience via apps.

Nickelodeon – It was nice that CBS briefly brought back the Slime in the endzone and Sponge Bob during the pregame and halftime shows. It reminded the viewer that ViacomCBS is using the game to engage the super fans of the future.

Comcast/NBCU/Peacock – Given poor Super Bowl viewer turnout and the weak financial position of ViacomCBS, NBCU may have an opportunity to get a larger broadcast presence by outbidding ViacomCBS for rights to broadcast AFC games.

The Entire Legacy Broadcast & pay-TV Industry, as less-than-stellar Super Bowl viewing is but one symptom of a larger paradigm shift toward streaming.

The poor ratings of Super Bowl LV can be excused somewhat because it was a non-competitive game, played in the middle of a pandemic, without a larger-than-life talent at half-time. That is not the whole story. The challenge to any Super Bowl broadcast is that streaming continues to suck viewers away from traditional television.

Stick with TDG and Stay in front of the Curve


A 20-year veteran media executive, Rob Silvershein’s success in today’s competitive media environment is a direct result of his unique experiences spanning traditional, emerging, and startup media platforms. He is an accomplished strategist and spends most of his time advising media companies on how to structure themselves for long term success. He currently lives in Manhattan Beach, CA.

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