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The Tremendous Bowl is shedding viewers beneath the age of 50, reflecting the fragmentation of the American media

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Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs in action, Super Bowl, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida, February 7, 2021.

Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

To understand the great challenge facing American media, take a look at the Super Bowl ratings for the past decade.

This year's game had 96.4 million viewers, the lowest rating since 2007. There are all sorts of theories as to why the number was so low. The game wasn't close. This season has been weird because of the pandemic. Musical guest The Weeknd wasn't a big half-time draw.

But none of this gets to the heart of the problem. Here are the Super Bowl ratings for 18 to 49 year olds – the most important demographic for advertisers – over the past decade.

Part of the decrease is related to the increase in streaming, which is not recorded in Nielsen data (but will be in 2024). But not so much. According to The Streamable, around 5.7 million people streamed the Super Bowl this year, up from 3.4 million last year.

Forget the blowout game and the weird halftime show. Whether it's an exciting comeback for Tom Brady against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, a great fourth quarter for Patrick Mahomes against the San Francisco 49ers in 2020, or Brady against Mahomes this year, it doesn't matter. Every year fewer people under 50 are watching.

Maybe football isn't as popular as it used to be. Maybe younger viewers are turned off by the league's handling of Colin Kaepernick or the concussions or the super long games full of advertisements.

Those arguments are less convincing, however, when you look at the 18-49 Sunday Night Football ratings, which have been remarkably consistent over the years leading up to this pandemic season.

A one-off September and October, with all major sports happening at the same time, may have lowered Sunday Night Football ratings for 2020. We'll have to see if 2021 returns to 2019 levels.

But the past three years have shown that there are plenty of hardcore soccer fans out there who have stayed up to date every week.

This suggests that the steady decline in Super Bowl ratings is not happening as there are fewer soccer fans in attendance each year. Rather, it is because fewer casual fans and non-sports viewers tune in.

Put simply, the Super Bowl is no longer the event it used to be.

Broken media and the decline of live events

That speaks for a significant change in the American media and has been noticeable for years. Think back to the "Game of Thrones" essays from a few years ago, where pondered whether it would be the last show Americans saw together.

Media are broken. With so many choices of what to do at any given time – video games, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Snapchat, Disney + – watching the Super Bowl may never be the cultural experience it once was.

There are several ironies here.

When the pandemic started and the NBA and MLB delayed their season, sports fans assumed that once they resumed, people would desperately return to live sports, both as a liferaft to normal and something that was recorded after months of viewing Programs to do was.

Instead, Americans seem to have developed different entertainment habits during the pandemic.

This could also explain the sudden drop in Sunday Night Football viewership this year and 2020 in general. In contrast, game hours and Netflix subscriptions have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Etsy revenue has increased. So you have pet adoptions.

But that free-falling audience didn't affect Super Bowl commercial prices, which rose each year until they hit a plateau of about $ 5.5 million per 30-second commercial this year. The Super Bowl may be a melting iceberg, but it's still by far the most-watched event of the year (even among 18- to 49-year-olds). In addition, "Sunday Night Football" is the most watched show for 18 to 49 year olds year after year.

The shattered media environment isn't going to stop ViacomCBS, Disney, Comcast, and Fox from paying billions of dollars more for NFL renewal rights – agreements that could come in weeks. Overall, the NFL could raise $ 100 billion from the networks over the next 10 years.

"If we were sitting here today doing a 20 year NFL renewal – and you asked me what I care about – it would be renewing the NFL in 21 years," said Eric Shanks, chief executive officer of Fox Sports. in December 2018.

These are American media in a nutshell.

Legacy media are poised to spend more and more on programming as they stare at data that suggests Americans want it less and less en masse. They are trying to modify their business for digital consumption but can only play the cards they have.

This doesn't even apply to the audience under the age of 18. When children grow up in an environment with no parents, religiously reading the newspaper's sports page or visiting ESPN's SportsCenter, the overall cultural relevance of the sport is at risk – especially if they have ad-free Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite to play with.

Sports betting to the rescue?

The antidote could be sports betting – a relatively young industry that could tempt 18- to 49-year-olds to give the sport a second chance. If sports games become legal in nearly all 50 states, it is possible that the Super Bowl ratings will revive.

Companies like FanDuel and DraftKings rely on this. Even Disney, a company that has long viewed gambling as an abomination to its family brand, is excited about the idea of ​​betting. Still, Disney CEO Bob Chapek noted this week that he believes sports betting appeals to the hardcore fan rather than the casual fan.

"It's especially attractive to the younger, very passionate sports audience," Chapek said of sports games during his company's call for profits on Thursday. "We see the value in it."

If the Super Bowl audience continues to shrink, the most obvious centralized American TV backup event is … nothing. It's hard to imagine that 50 million 18- to 49-year-olds will see an esports Super Bowl or UEFA Champions League football in 20 years.

It is easier to imagine that the common American television experience will slowly die out.

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Katherine Clark