‘Much More’ Than Football: Super Bowl Popularity Unaffected by Regular Season Issues, Expert Says

But there's also no way of knowing how long the Super Bowl will be the spectacle of the year

The National Football League saw television ratings decline this season, amid player safety concerns, sideline protests and changing consumer habits.

But the Super Bowl has been largely immune to those issues, and this year should be no different.

"The Super Bowl is so much more than a football game," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "Its audience is comprised of many, many people who don’t even care about football. So, the Super Bowl is able to pad its ratings as one of the biggest secular holidays on the calendar."

The Super Bowl brings in ratings that other football games don't approach. An average of 111.3 million viewers tuned in to Super Bowl LI last year to watch the New England Patriots claw back from a 28-3 to top the Atlanta Falcons. The Nielsen company estimated that 70 percent of homes with televisions watched the Super Bowl.

And though its ratings fell behind the three Super Bowls before it -- Super Bowl XLIX had 114.4 million viewers, the most ever -- the game is still the most-watched program on television each year.

Thompson said the slight ratings drop among the Super Bowls is not significant.

He called the game a "secular version of Mardi Gras." Its timing on the calendar --after the holidays, in the middle of winter-- fuels Americans' desire to get together and celebrate, he said. And because it is a winner-take-all game with a predetermined date, it makes it easy for people to plan for it, unlike the best-of-seven series for the MLB and NBA finals.

The Super Bowl has it all -- it "transcends football," with the help of commercials and the halftime show, Thompson said. It has ingratiated its way into American culture in such a way that watching the game alone or not being out at a party on Super Bowl Sunday feels like a failure, he said.

But there's also no way of knowing how long the Super Bowl will be the spectacle of the year.

Thompson speculated that the evolution of the commercials could point to the "cracks beginning to show" for the Super Bowl’s broad cultural reach.

"Enchantment with the commercials has gone down considerably," because people see the commercials as not as funny or inspiring as they thought, and because the commercials are also now often available before the game, he said.

As for the regular season, average viewership dropped about 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to data collected by Nielsen.

During the season, NFL spokesman Alex Riethmiller told the Associated Press the league thinks the ratings drop is part of a broader television consumption trend rather than a single controversy. The NFL did not respond to NBC’s request for comment.

"Football seems to be going down faster than what was predicted," Thompson said.

But until it drops off the Top 30 in programming, he said, there’s not much worry of the Super Bowl losing its number one spot in television. And even so, there's a possibility that Super Bowl parties are part of a cultural tradition that could continue even if football interest wanes dramatically.

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