After hours of pre-game hype before Super Bowl 2011, I began to wonder “how super is the Super Bowl?” Compared to other sporting events’ championships, it has gained almost mythic proportions – today is known as “Super Bowl Sunday” and by some estimates trails only Thanksgiving as an American food holiday. I don’t hear that kind of reverence for baseball or even soccer.
The statistics seem to back it up. Nielsen ratings for Super Bowl 2010 make it the most-watched American TV show in history, with an audience of 106.5 million viewers. That’s nearly 10% higher than the 2009 Super Bowl and breaks the record set 28 years ago by the final episode of M*A*S*H.
According to Nielsen, an “average” Super Bowl has almost five times the viewers as the most popular World Series game. That certainly seems super. But like most metrics, it bears some explanation. Compared to the World Series, the Super Bowl has some built-in advantages:
- The Super Bowl is scheduled on a fixed date which is published years in advance. The World Series schedule isn’t announced until a few days beforehand; the final game might not be known until the day it happens.
- The Super Bowl is always played on Sunday when most people are not working and is scheduled at an hour that’s convenient for both coasts. The World Series can happen on any day of the week, sometimes during the day for the West Coast.
- The Super Bowl is played during February when the weather doesn’t allow too many distractions in most of the country. The World Series is in October; prime outdoor weather across the US.
- Speaking of distractions, the other networks don’t program against the Super Bowl. The World Series often has to compete against new fall TV shows.
Furthermore, if you compare the total viewers of the World Series over a four to seven game series, the Super Bowl advantage all but disappears.
It’s also illustrative to compare the Super Bowl with other international sporting events. An estimated 700M people watched the 2010 World Cup final and nearly one billion viewed the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. While these estimates are not directly comparable to Nielson ratings, the sheer volume of the difference reinforces that the World Cup and Olympics are more popular worldwide. Finally, to put all of this in perspective: sports are not even the most-watched events on television; that honor seems to go to celebrity funerals.
Like always, simple metrics can obscure a more nuanced situation. Regardless of whether today’s Super Bowl breaks any viewing records, I can say that the game has turned out to be “super.” And for the second year in a row, it was better than any of the commercials.
(Monday update: Nielsen reports that Super Bowl 2011 surpassed 2010 to take over the ratings title.)