The Vince Lombardi Trophy Will Go To … Streaming Platforms

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are heading into tomorrow’s Super Bowl as underdogs to the Kansas City Chiefs with a negative three and one-half point spread, according to Las Vegas bookmakers. Buc’s veteran quarterback Tom Brady brings incredible stats including the most Super Bowl wins at six. The Chief’s explosive young QB Patrick Mahomes led them to last year’s Superbowl victory and was voted the game’s MVP. The largest age gap ever between these Superbowl quarterbacks has not gone unnoticed. Brady was actually playing for the University of Michigan a few months before Mahomes was born.

Watching this generational clash is likely to unleash a torrent of superlatives to make the sportswriters’ fingers ache. From a data science point of view, the generational clash we’re interested in is off the field — and all about viewership between traditional TV versus live streaming. TV has steadily lost a chunk of its audience to streaming, which can have an impact on advertising revenue during a game where the average price of a thirty second commercial exceeds $5 million. Let’s take a look at where that matchup stands heading into Sunday.

NFL Ratings Recovered After A Covid Slump
TV ratings dropped off during the Covid-impacted NFL regular season, but picked up as the drama moved into playoffs. Nielsen ratings for the regular season were down about 9 percent from last year. Ratings grew as usual heading into the playoffs, although slightly softer than last year’s levels because the league added two more playoff games into the equation, and also because playoffs commenced three days after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, which led to a surge in competing cable news viewership.

However the US presidential inauguration was held a few days before the AFC and NFC championships games, and as politics started its slow return to normal, viewership of those title games increased and slightly surpassed 2020 levels.

There was real drama in those matchups that helped pull in viewers. The NFC title featured Brady against Green Bay and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers. The AFC championship saw a battle royal between the new generation of QBs, with KC’s Mahomes besting Buffalo and its young QB Josh Allen. Those storylines clearly made people tune in.

Looking ahead to tomorrow’s game there’s plenty more drama in store with the generational “battle royal” between Brady and Mahomes. Despite an overall soft season of ratings for the NFL, our prediction is modest growth in this year’s Super Bowl TV ratings, which should help the execs at broadcaster CBS breathe a sigh of relief.

Historical and Predicted Super Bowl TV Viewership, 2016-2021 (Millions)

Streaming Platforms Rise Up
Streaming is still a fraction of total viewership, but that fraction continues to grow as new platforms are offered and more viewers cut the cord with pay TV. Two years ago Super Bowl LIII was watched on over 7.5 million unique devices.  Over 2.6 million people watched on streaming devices per average minute of that year’s game, which was 31% higher than 2018, according to rating service Nielsen.

That trend continued in 2020 as Super Bowl LIV saw another 30% jump in the live stream audience to 3.4 million people per average minute.

Fueling the growth is the fact that streaming platforms are more ubiquitous, while the trend of cord-cutting continues to drive down the number of households with traditional pay-TV subscriptions. Among all cable operators in the US, subscribers were down 5.5 million in 2019 and are estimated to close 2020 with approximately 6 million fewer. Fewer pay TV subscribers — and fewer Super Bowl parties due to Covid — means the number of people who will watch on a streaming service is likely to break all records.

Our prediction is the Super Bowl LV live stream audience will surpass 4.7 million people per average minute of the game, watching on over 12 million unique devices, including both official and illegal streaming platforms. That 12 million unique device estimate should make 2021’s game a new watershed moment for live streaming.

Overall, A TD for Aggregate Super Bowl Viewership

The NFL and CBS are likely to crow about a significant bounce in ratings for Super Bowl LV on TV and especially on authorized streaming channels. While ratings will not be near the peak of 114.5 million viewers who tuned in for the big game in 2015, it should be a healthy end to a season that navigated the choppy waters of Covid and a crazy election year. Streaming growth should be the big story, but that all depends on just how many yards Mr. Brady and Mr. Mahomes rack up Sunday night in Tampa.

Like over 105 million of you, we’ll be watching.

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