By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published Tuesday, February 4, 2014) The Seattle Seahawks blowout victory over the Denver Broncos last Sunday was exactly the sort of lopsided affair which delivers partisan fans endless joy, but gives those marketing experts and those big-budget television advertisers heartburn and grief. After all, how many TV viewers will remain glued to the big game once it becomes apparent that the outcome has already been handily established?
The answer, sports fans, is a lot.
According to Nielson ratings released by Fox Sports and News Corp (the ratings were based on surveys taken during and immediately after the game), Sunday’s Super Bowl drew in a staggering 111.5 million viewers, which makes it the most watched event in all of television history. The previous all-time viewership record was set in 2012, also in a Super Bowl game.
When scored by percentage, Sunday’s game in East Rutherford, New Jersey tied the 2013 Super Bowl aired by CBS. Both games were viewed by 46.4 percent of TV households.
Conventional wisdom holds that a lopsided game will drive viewers away from the event in search of other distractions, even changing the channel in search of something else to watch. Such was not the case this past Sunday, and that was good news for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and for all those advertisers who ponied up millions of dollars to place their 30 second and 60 second ads in the biggest football event of the year.
Even this year’s halftime show, which featured Bruno Mars and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, topped Nielson’s charts, pulling in 115.3 million viewers and besting previous records set by Beyonce in 2013 and Madonna in 2012.
Why the viewer loyalty so deeply into such a lopsided game?
Some entertainment, sports and TV analysts suggest that several factors might have been at work. One is the organic growth of the Super Bowl itself, now a sports institution in its own right even larger than the NFL on its best Sunday. Many people choose to watch the Super Bowl even if they have not kept up with teams during the regular season, and still others participate in watching by way of parties and special events. Those numbers appear to have grown steadily over the last decade, much in the same way that, in previous decades, millions who would tune-in watch the World Series had in fact seen few baseball games during the same season.
In addition, Super Bowl parties have become social events found in every neighborhood in every city and town. Weeks of advertising by grocery stores, fast food chains, delis, restaurants and bars, as well as by the major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, heighten the narrative and encourage a holiday-like spending spree for what amounts to the first big party event after New Year’s. Retailers compete fiercely for this social event spending, and year after year that bar has been raised. And this year, a particularly sluggish holiday season meant that many big box stores and food companies were looking for a way to close that gap in sales. Indeed, spending on pregame advertising also hit a new record for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Sports analysts, and dedicated pro football fans in general, also point to the unusual nature of the 2013-14 season in which Seattle—a team which has never won a Super Bowl—channeled so much energy and generated so many headlines through their combination of stifling defense and explosive offense. This was the first year in which the two teams rated number one in defense and offense at the start of the season both made it to the end of the season intact—and it was the first season in which teams ranked number one in the conferences, the NL and the AL, met in the big game. These factors meant that fan loyalty was running high all season long for both Denver and Seattle.
According to Brien Sorne, who runs the marketing agency ALCOM in Tallahassee, Florida (as much as sports-centric a town as one can find) generational changes are affecting the way we view the game.
“Welcome,” Sorne says, “to the new NFL: young, brash, outspoken, holistic, unselfish, fierce, and unrestrained by conventional thinking.” Sorne sees the new and rapidly evolving style of play as a challenge to the old school. “Like American minute-men challenging the might of the British regulars, the rules of war have changed.”
Sorne cited the classical Homeric narrative in the weeks leading to the big game, that of the noble warrior Peyton Manning, a battle-worn commander, bravely deploying his forces “against a younger, hungrier team. If knives and swords were part of the game, we would have seen Peyton at mid-field near the end, while the Seahawks finished him off.”
Another factor seemed to be the commercials. Many viewers indicated that they do watch the big game for a look at some of those much-talked about, much-hyped ads. This year was no exception, and—pregame hype about the content of those ads reached an all-time high. Many of the ads were widely discussed beginning weeks in advance, and this year a record number of ads were already being characterized as “controversial,” “emotional,” and in some cases “too hot for TV” ten days before kickoff. The examples are too numerous to list here, but include Soda Stream’s “banned” ad featuring actress Scarlett Johansen, the widely-promoted Budweiser spot shot in Winter Park, Florida and portraying a war veteran returning home, and ads for high end cars like Jaguar and Maserati (perhaps the most expensive products ever advertised in a Super Bowl game). Dozens of ads were “banned” altogether, but received millions of views on You Tube by internet users curious about the content of the spots.
“Super Bowl XLVIII was engaging for those ads,” Sorne told us. “We watched just to be sure we had seen every commercial, hoping the next one would be better that the last. Like fireworks shows, we won’t stop watching until we know we have seen the finale.”
Much to the delight of marketers and advertisers, those ads become objects of entertainment, and become the instant source of conversation on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Monitoring social media during the game, Thursday Review writers noticed that the chatter quickly shifted from Seattle’s gathering victory—which seemed inevitable from the first quarter—to the content and caliber of the ads. “Radio Shack 1980s ad best so far,” one friend posted. A few minutes later another friend posted, “couldn’t Ford have saved a few dollars on over-the-top ads and passed that along to car buyers?” Still another friend posted “I am losing track of where the reality ads begin and end, and what’s an ad and what’s part of the game!”
“The Super Bowl is not a football game,” Sorne says, “It is a national holiday. Like Christmas, you don’t have to believe in the virgin birth to participate. We are an entertainment-oriented society in which anything that can stimulate us a bit further is worth watching.”
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