With more than 114M viewers, Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was the most-watched broadcast in the U.S. according to Nielsen ratings. The next four Super Bowls had declining ratings, with 2019’s Super Bowl XLII yielding only 98M viewers – the lowest since 2009. The overnight ratings for this year’s Super Bowl suggest the trend was broken with a small improvement to 102M viewers.
While the viewership for the 2015 Super Bowl seems impressive, it’s worth putting it into perspective by considering the total potential viewership. According to Nielsen, the 2015 game had a household share of 71 (defined as % of households with TVs in use that are watching the game) which, due to population increases, doesn’t even rank it in the top 10 Super Bowls. By comparison, the 1976 Super Bowl is the highest-rated ever with a household share of 78.
Clearly, a higher percentage of households is more impressive than a higher number of households. This is the challenge with breathless articles (and many company dashboards) which highlight ego metrics focused on big numbers, rather than what is trying to be accomplished. We should focus on outcome metrics as opposed to activity ones.
All of the hype around how many people watch the Super Bowl also overlooks the built-in advantages it has on other sports. As I wrote a decade ago, the Super Bowl is a single game on a fixed date which is known years in advance – during the time of year when the weather minimizes distractions. This isn’t true for baseball or hockey.
By comparison, the 1986 World Series was estimated to have been seen by 254M viewers over the 7-game series. Of course, people likely tuned in for more than one game so the number of unique viewers was lower. The deciding game seven had a 55 share; the highest ever for a baseball game.
The only way to know if the Super Bowl is really the most-watched broadcast would be to compare it to the Olympics or World Cup. Unfortunately, there’s no consistent measuring system and published estimates of these events have been shown to be inaccurate. For this reason, most people cite the Super Bowl as the most-watched U.S. televised program.
I can’t say for certain the Super Bowl is the most-watched but I’ll definitely support the idea that it’s the most-hyped.