By the time Tyrann Mathieu and Tom Brady got all up in each other’s grills in the closing seconds of the first half of Super Bowl LV, CBS viewers were already beginning to look for other things to do with their evening.
Moments after Brady connected on his third touchdown pass of the night to give the Bucs a 21-6 lead over the faltering Chiefs, while the Honey Badger and the GOAT began jawing at each other, the Nielsen dials maxed out. It was 8:12 p.m. in Tampa, with a halftime show and two full quarters of football on the menu, and CBS’ ratings, having reached their peak at some 97 million viewers, began to tumble.
Brady-to-Antonio Brown would prove to be the night’s final airmail touchdown, and Leonard Fournette’s 27-yard run midway through the third quarter turned out to be the last time either team made its way into the end zone. About 90 million viewers were on hand to see the game’s final scoring play, a 52-yard Ryan Succop field goal with 2:46 left in the third. As the clock struck 10 p.m. on the East Coast and the game began to creep up on a full hour of punts, interceptions and turnovers on downs, the audience had dwindled to 81.1 million viewers.
At 10:12 p.m., as Brady’s seventh Super Bowl victory was secured, 74.7 million diehards were still tuned in, or about 7.3 million fewer than was the case when time expired on CBS’ 2019 broadcast. By comparison, some 109 million viewers were dialed into NBC at the end of the Philly Special game in 2018—about what you’d expect for one of the century’s most thrilling and flat-out bonkers Super Bowls.
If there’s any lingering confusion as to why the ratings for this year’s broadcast sank, bear in mind that this Super Bowl never cracked the 100 million viewer mark during the primetime hours. And while the initial tune-in was somewhat lower than usual—a function, perhaps, of the loss of the casual fans who in non-pandemic years tend to beef up the TV stats by way of parties and family gatherings—Sunday night’s early peak really jumps off the stat sheet.
Any game that reaches its largest audience in the first half is destined to serve up disappointing ratings returns. More often than not, the Super Bowl hits its high-water mark late in the fourth quarter, as was the case in 2020, when Patrick Mahomes put the finishing touches on the Chiefs’ comeback effort in front of 103.5 million Fox viewers. When the game is as compelling as Super Bowl LII—an offensive juggernaut wherein the Pats and Eagles shattered 17 records, including most combined total yards of offense (1,151) and fewest punts (1)—the audience just keeps building throughout the night. Per Nielsen, 112.3 million people watched Brandon Graham strip-sack Brady in the waning moments of the game, which was up from the 106.6 million viewers who tuned in for Justin Timberlake’s halftime show performance.
If a dearth of Super Bowl parties may have contributed to the decline in CBS’ overall deliveries, the demographic breakdown was proportionate to pretty much every other big NFL broadcast in recent memory. As has been the case the last several years, adult male viewers outnumbered women by a fairly slender margin (53% to 47%, or a net advantage of just 5.1 million), while the young 2-17 crowd made up 12% of the overall audience. As much as the absolute number of kids tuning in was down, with 4.4 million fewer non-adults tuning in, their contribution to the overall demo mix wasn’t too far off from last year’s broadcast (13%) or the 2019 game (13%) or the one before that (14%).
In other words, while you might expect that a diminishment in the number of more casual fans would lead to a far more disproportionate turnout of men age 50 and up, that wasn’t the case. Men who’ve aged out of the 18-49 demo accounted for 26% of the total Super Bowl audience, up just a tick compared to their representation in the three previous broadcasts (25%). Meanwhile, women who’ve hit the half-century mark made up an even greater percentage of Sunday’s audience than they did in the last three games, accounting 24% of the total TV crowd, up from 22%.
That squares with the gradual aging of the Super Bowl audience as a whole; the median age of the viewers who tuned in for Sunday’s broadcast was 50.6 years, up from 49.1 a year ago and 46.6 in 2018. This puts the NFL fan base about halfway between the NBA Finals (46.1 years) and World Series (56.2).
While a more competitive game would have gone a long way toward helping boost the Super Bowl deliveries, CBS was hampered from the jump. According to Nielsen, 17.8 million fewer people were watching TV on Sunday night compared to the year-ago period, which means that CBS had to contend with a 14% drop in the number of available viewers. Even on TV’s biggest night, the effects of cord-cutting and a generational disinterest are hard to ignore; 31.6 million fewer people were watching TV on Sunday night than they were three years ago, when NBC aired the Eagles-Pats game.
You can blame the pandemic for a lot of things, but it almost assuredly didn’t cause the overall TV audience to shrink by nearly 25% in just three years’ time. CBS never had a chance.