The Super Bowl is the most watched TV event in America. The question each year is by how much.
Variety Intelligence Platform predicts a TV audience of between 97 million and 100 million watching next Sunday on NBC, greater than last year and on a par with the finals of 2019-20.
When assessing potential viewership, there are multiple factors to consider. The first factor is momentum: The 2022 Super Bowl is coming hot on the heels of two weeks of widely acclaimed postseason games that set linear TV viewership highs.
The second factor is the waning impact of the pandemic on viewer behavior. Last year’s marquee event featured Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who fought their way from the wildcard round to defeat Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs. It was the lowest-watched Super Bowl on TV in 15 years, sinking from a tick under 100 million viewers in 2020 to 91.6 million in 2021.
At this time last year, the pandemic blues helped to depress viewership, as did a lopsided victory that did nothing to retain viewers to the end of the game. The postseason audiences show this is no longer the case.
Another consideration is that 2021’s final was multicast on CBS and CBS All Access (one month before it rebranded as Paramount+) as well as on digital sites for the NFL, CBS and Yahoo Sports, and it was the first Super Bowl to be multicast on a major SVOD. Nielsen doesn’t factor SVOD viewership in its figures; with NBC multicasting onto Peacock this year, it may siphon viewers who would otherwise tune into the linear broadcast.
2022 is also the first year that accurately includes Nielsen’s out-of-home-viewing estimates, to cover those people watching in a bar, at a party or anywhere else. Last year, that attempted mode of measurement saw technical errors and undercounting OOH audiences (albeit during a pandemic, when OOH audiences were at an all-time low).
The caveat is small, however, as this NFL postseason came at a time when the Omicron variant was surging across America and many were eschewing private and public gatherings.
It would be surprising for OOH numbers to be the key factor behind this year’s viewership surge. Consumer research platform Attest found that just 2% of U.S. adults intended to watch in a bar or similar public venue, with 1 in 10 saying they would attend a Super Bowl party.
This leads to the third factor to consider: the draw of the teams involved. The Rams and Bengals were each responsible for the lowest-watched game in the wildcard and divisional games, respectively. Despite that fact, these games were all the most watched or second most watched in six years, so even if the teams are not the strongest draws in 2022, they still outperform prior NFL seasons.
It's important to note a key similarity in this year’s Super Bowl to last year’s. 2021’s final featured the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who upended top seeds in their march to the big game. 2022 features the Cincinnati Bengals, who also entered in the wildcard round and vanquished top seeds en route to the final.
The Bengals’ appearance in the Super Bowl is a classic underdog story: the worst team in the NFL only two years ago and their first postseason victories in over 30 years. VIP+’s research partner Maru Group quantified the impact the team's classic underdog tale has on interest in viewership: Almost one in four said they were more interested in watching the Super Bowl as a result, with 13% less interested.
Another point of note for an audience estimate is assessing public interest. While not an exact science, surveys are usually accurate, directionally at the very least. Maru Group’s exclusive research for VIP+ shows that 56% of U.S. adults intend to watch this year’s game, which is 5 percentage points greater than those who reported watching last year. Using rudimentary math, this suggests an audience increase of at least 5 million.
It’s interesting to note that some viewers from earlier playoff rounds do not intend to watch the Super Bowl. Presumably these are fans upset that their team didn’t make it through, but this does suggest that the Super Bowl isn’t a magnet for anyone who likes football.
Moving back to the impact of the underdog narrative on Super Bowl interest, around two in five who intend to watch the Rams versus the Bengals say the Bengals’ story has increased their interest, with only 1 in 50 saying that it decreased it.
As an aside, Maru Group asked the 1,514 people surveyed if they thought this year’s game would attract a greater audience than last year. Overall, more people thought it would not, but among those intending to watch — reminder, that's a greater total than last year — the majority said they thought it would be higher, as does VIP+.