The Super Bowl’s Base Is Eroding Rapidly

The game faces two broad threats: a declining audience and a new advertising culture.

Football fans watch the Super Bowl.
Jessica Kourkounis / Reuters

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter.

The Super Bowl may seem like an invincible juggernaut. In a world of fragmented content, in which all digitally connected human beings awaken to their own News Feed, Netflix recommendations, or Spotify Discover Weekly playlist, it’s the one piece of media that is all but guaranteed to reach 100 million Americans at the exact same time. Of the 10 most watched broadcasts in U.S. history, nine of them are Super Bowls from the past decade (the other is the 1983 M*A*S*H finale).

But the Super Bowl is like a large castle perched at the top of a rapidly eroding island. The game faces two broad threats: a declining audience for televised football, and a new advertising culture that jeopardizes the Super Bowl’s identity.

In general, Americans care a bit less for football than they once did. As recently as 2007, 43 percent of Americans said it was their favorite sport to watch. At last reading, in 2017, that figure was down to 37 percent—the result, some argue, of more awareness about concussions, or perhaps the kneeling controversy. When the aging stars Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers leave the NFL, as they inevitably must, those numbers might tick down yet further.

The Super Bowl has thrived for half a century in the fertile fields of traditional television, which are quickly becoming a disaster zone. Americans under 35 watch at least 40 percent less traditional TV (that is, on the cable bundle) than they did in 2010. Ratings are drowning for everything on television, from broadcast to cable and from news to scripted programming. Although the big game might be dog-paddling to stay above water, it is still vulnerable: The Nielsen rating for the Super Bowl has declined every year since 2015.

Even as football’s viewership base erodes, political and social forces might complicate the very identity of the Super Bowl.

Traditionally, everything about the big game was designed to offer respite from controversy or partisan rancor. The pregame ceremony featured enough flags to furnish several presidential inaugurations. A noncontroversial artist belted out the national anthem before a patriotic burst of fireworks. An unobjectionable pop star (especially in the post-Nipplegate era) played PG hits during the halftime show. In the commercial breaks, Pixar-ish animals told Jay Leno–esque jokes to sell cars and soda.

But big companies, including those paying for prominent ad placement during the Super Bowl, are learning that controversy can be good for business. For example, Nike partnered with the quarterback Colin Kaepernick to support his calls for criminal-justice reform, and Gillette took on toxic masculinity.

“You’re seeing corporations embrace social-justice messaging because their consumers want it, their employees want it, and their potential employees want it,” said Nneka Logan, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Tech. “The historical disjuncture between corporations and activists is breaking down.”

In an otherwise crowded and fragmented media environment, controversies can earn attention on television news. “What corporations want to do when they veer left is be noticed, incite conversations, and feature on TV news as editorial,” said Tom Goodwin, the executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media.

Right-wingers burning Nike socks? That’s an advertisement for Nike. A CNN panel debating Gillette’s foray into gender relations? An ad for Gillette. Fox News ridiculing Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign? Free marketing for Starbucks. “Even the backlash can draw positive attention to the brand,” Logan said, “as long as it focuses people’s attention on something the company sincerely wants to talk about.”

One has every reason to expect this political tone to take over the Super Bowl just as it’s taken over the rest of the public sphere. In fact, in a recent Super Bowl, Budweiser went so far as to project the somehow controversial message that immigrants are actually good.

But Super Bowl ads won’t all veer left. Any event that reaches 100 million Americans touches on every conceivable demographic, and the NFL’s most devoted audience resembles an approximation of the Republican Party. A 2018 Gallup poll found that men, older Americans, and conservatives are all about 10 points more likely to name football as their favorite sport than women, young people, and liberals. Brands that appeal to this demographic might treat the Super Bowl as a platform to defend old-fashioned American values from progressive change. “We’re going to see ads that represent old, traditional American values and others that push liberal boundaries about, say, the role of women and girls in society,” Logan said.

The Super Bowl once represented a unique and unifying cultural spectacle. But we may soon see the emergence of a game within the big game: not just conference versus conference, but culture versus culture. Two visions of the future of American values, doing battle in interstitial 30-second spots.

Unlike concussion fears or the decline of traditional television, this might not spell the end of football as we remember it. But it would be the end of the Super Bowl as we know it.