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The National Football League is an anomaly.
While nearly every legacy media company is in peril, facing the cold bitter winds and existential crises that the streaming era has given way to, the sports juggernaut is openly thriving as a peerless entertainment force.
Instead of finding itself in decline, the NFL is in the envious position of scoring ratings touchdowns and blitzing past its own impressive viewership records.
Super Bowl LVIII was no different, averaging 123.4 million viewers across several platforms to shatter previous records and become the most-watched live television program in a generation, according to preliminary numbers released by CBS Monday night. That ratings figure was up 7% from last year’s Big Game, which previously held the title for the most-watched Super Bowl of all-time. 120 million viewers watched the sporting event on CBS, the largest audience ever for a single network, the company said.
In fact, the highly anticipated Sunday evening showdown in Las Vegas between the Kansas City Chiefs face and San Francisco 49ers drew such a large audience that it approached the number of viewers that tuned in for the historic Apollo 11 moon Landing. That seminal moment averaged 125 to 150 million U.S. viewers, according to estimates.
The record-breaking Super Bowl capped a strong season for the NFL, with the NFC championship game on Fox averaging 56 million viewers and the AFC championship game averaging 55 million on CBS. The epic conclusion to an already epic season proved that the NFL is at the apex of its powers.
It’s all the more impressive given the collapse of the infrastructure that has defined the media business over the past several decades. Broadly speaking, the entire industry is in decline, as millions of people cut the cord each year, trading in traditional one-size-fits-all cable packages for a la carte streaming offerings, upending the entire business.
As a result, conventional media companies are struggling. Movie theaters are struggling.Even other sports leagues are struggling.
But the NFL is different. Instead of seeing its audience dwindle and taper off, the sports-media powerhouse appears immune to those forceful — and merciless — industry trends, which have wreaked havoc on everyone else.
“The NFL during the 2023-24 season – perhaps more so than any season in recent memory – separated itself from the rest of live entertainment properties on U.S. airwaves (entertainment, sports or political),” said Austin Karp, the digital managing editor of Sports Business Journal.
Notably, the NFL has managed to pull this feat off while its other two big counterparts in sports have not. The NBA and MLB still command sizable live audiences, but their viewership has slid considerably in recent years.
“Other sports like the NBA and MLB have work to do in making it easier to deliver live games for fans,” Karp added. “There is the legal headache of the regional sports network situations. Also with delivery streaming locally to fans.”
Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that more than half of Americans now believe football is “America’s sport” — more than twice as many as those who said baseball, which has long been considered America’s favorite pastime. It’s a testament to how sown into the fabric of American life the NFL has become, which was on full display Sunday.
The NFL’s cultural cache could not have been any more glaring, as Allegiant Stadium transformed into a Las Vegas carnival for the ages, attended by a parade of celebrities and other members of the societal elite.
What other event in America can draw a crowd mixed up of celebrities, politicians, and business leaders who fly across the world and pay it to be there? In attendance Sunday were Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Elon Musk, Gavin Newsom, Jay-Z, Tim Cook, LeBron James, Jimmy Kimmel, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Paul Rudd, Martha Stewart, Mark Wahlberg, Kendall Jenner, Shaquille O’Neal, Lizzo, and scores of other A-listers. No other event rivals the star power the Super Bowl draws.
“The NFL continues to separate itself from all other entertainment or sports programming, and I don’t see it stopping,” CBS Sports boss Sean McManus said in a Q&A with Puck’s John Ourand. “I really don’t. As it becomes more difficult to generate large audiences, the NFL is going to continue to be every bit as important and probably more important in the coming years.”
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