Will 49ers-Chiefs Stop the Super Bowl’s 4-Year TV Ratings Slide?

54th edition of the NFL’s title game offers a myriad of reasons it should top last year’s snoozefest

Just as Patrick Mahomes tries to avoid getting sacked by Nick Bosa & Co., the NFL is hoping to scramble out of the pocket of another year of declining audiences for its crown jewel event.

Fox, which is airing the game, will no doubt garner a supersize audience on Sunday, when the San Francisco 49ers square off against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. But despite the overall strong ratings performance for the NFL over the past two seasons — each of the league’s TV partners hit multi-year highs in 2019 — the Super Bowl has actually seen its audience decline each of the past four years. Last year, it fell below 100 million viewers for the first time in a decade.

But the matchup between the Chiefs and the 49ers offers several upsides that should make the NFL and Fox feel good about ending the Super Bowl’s four-year ratings slide. The Chiefs — led by Mahomes, last year’s MVP — feature one of the highest-scoring offenses. Mahomes against the 49ers’ top-ranked defense figures to be a heavyweight fight. The Chiefs’ coach, Andy Reid, is also a sentimental favorite, having been in the league for two decades and still searching for that elusive title.

On the other sideline, the 49ers are one of the league’s marquee franchises: Only the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have won more Super Bowls. San Francisco also features its own list of stars, including Richard Sherman and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (who is looking to escape the shadow of Patriots’ star Tom Brady, for whom he used to sit behind on the depth chart).

The game should shatter records for TV viewing in the Kansas City market: The last time the Chiefs made the Super Bowl, Richard Nixon was midway through his first term as president. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the game set a new record in the San Francisco-Oakland market. The Bay Area is home to the 6th-largest TV market, and now the 49ers have it all to themselves following the Raiders’ upcoming move to Las Vegas.

Besides, the low (for the Super Bowl) numbers for last year had more to do with the game being a snoozefest, a 13-3 victory by the Patriots over the Los Angeles Rams. It was 3-0 heading into the fourth quarter and featured just a single touchdown. Patriots fatigue may have also played a factor. Super Bowl LIV is the first time in four years the game will not feature the Patriots.

The last two seasons have seen the steepest drop-offs in viewership. Super Bowl LIII dipped 5% from Super Bowl LII, which itself was down 8% from Super Bowl LI (that was down 0.5% from Super Bowl 50). Here is the TV-only audience for the past five Super Bowls, so you can see for yourself:

  • Super Bowl LIII (CBS): 98.2 million
  • Super Bowl LII (NBC): 103.4 million
  • Super Bowl LI (Fox): 111.3 million
  • Super Bowl 50 (CBS): 111.9 million
  • Super Bowl XLIX (NBC): 114.4 million

That 114.4 million for Super Bowl XLIX remains the highest amount ever for a TV broadcast in U.S. history.

While the Super Bowl audience has dwindled, the cost for advertisers has continued to rise. The Super Bowl remains the most expensive ad buy on TV, with last year’s game costing an average of $4.5 million for 30-seconds of airtime, according to data from ad-tracking firm Kantar Media. Overall, CBS brought in $412 million in ad time for last year’s game.

Fox sold out its entire ad inventory back in November, far earlier than usual, getting as much as $5.6 million for 30-seconds of airtime. Both President Donald Trump and Democratic hopeful Michael Bloomberg will run 60-second campaign ads, costing more than $20 million combined.

Unlike just about every other type of TV programming, networks don’t guarantee a specific audience when selling commercial time for the Super Bowl. The game speaks for itself: It’s by far the most-watched TV program every year, with an audience in the triple digits. The viewership number is more for bragging rights for the NFL. After the confetti falls, Fox will premiere the third season of its reality hit “The Masked Singer.”

No matter what happens, Super Bowl LIV will be far and away the most-watched TV show of 2020. But Fox and the NFL are hoping that gap doesn’t continue to shrink.

Super Bowl LIV airs Sunday, Feb. 2 at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT on Fox.

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays


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