Whether the Philadelphia Eagles can beat the New England Patriots is only one of the questions surrounding Super Bowl LII as the NFL struggles with declining ratings, player protests and fan outrage.
Will any of the players take a knee? (Probably not.) Will television ratings decline from last year? (Probably.) Even so, will Super Bowl LII be the most-watched television broadcast of the year? (Undoubtedly.)
The central issue is whether fans who tuned out in droves during the regular season — ratings were down 9.7 percent from 2016 — will return for the big game, either out of a sense of tradition or morbid curiosity over whether any of the players will take a knee.
They probably won’t — no players have knelt during the playoffs — but the suspense may juice viewership, said Chris Lewis, creative strategist for Sports Pundit, which released a study Thursday about the 2017 kneeling phenomenon.
“The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t kneel at all. The Patriots did a little,” Mr. Lewis said. “Personally, I would be surprised if anybody did, but it’s definitely going to be something to watch. Even around the office, people were saying, ‘I wasn’t planning on watching the game, but I do want to see what’s going to happen.’ Or if anything’s going to happen.”
Lest anyone forget about the protests, conservative corporate watchdog 2ndVote released a social media ad campaign Thursday urging the league to “choose veterans over politics.”
“We’re reminding the NFL that fans want football, not politics, at the Super Bowl,” said 2ndVote spokesman Robert Kuykendall.
On the left, the group Unstripped Voice announced that it had gathered more than 200,000 signatures on a petition calling for fans to boycott the Super Bowl over free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who helped lead the sideline protests in the 2016 season.
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers in March. He has since filed a grievance with the NFL after failing to sign with another team.
“Many of you have commented how this is the 1st time in 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 … even 40 years that you haven’t watched a single NFL game,” petition organizer Vic Oyediji said in a post. “With that in mind, let’s cap it off by giving the NFL one of its lowest-rated Super Bowls in years.”
Few would bet against him. The past eight Super Bowl games have drawn more than 100 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch, but ratings have declined steadily since the 2015 match-up between the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.
“Don’t be surprised if Super Bowl viewership takes a hit this year,” said Mr. Kuykendall. “The NFL’s television ratings are down 10 percent on the season, and the conference championship games had the lowest combined viewership in nine years.”
Television audiences also fell during this year’s playoffs, with the four Wild Card games dropping 11.5 percent and the AFC and NFC Championship games down by 8 percent from last year.
“The good news is this year’s Super Bowl broadcast on NBC will, in all likelihood, average well over 100 million viewers for the ninth straight year,” media consultant Brad Adgate said in a Forbes op-ed. “The bad news is that the audience will probably decline for the third consecutive year.”
He cited the increase in original television programming and streaming, as well as the impact of social media, while others have pointed to unexciting games, poor officiating and even bad weather for driving down ratings.
Even if the Super Bowl audience takes another dip, NBC is expected to collect “close to $500 million” in game-related advertising, which would set a single-day record for a media company, according to AdWeek.
“I do believe the protest narrative turned some people off,” Mark Lazarus, NBC Broadcasting & Sports chairman, told Yahoo Sports. “And I think it’s unfortunate the players did not articulate what exactly they are doing very well at the beginning, and they let other people define the narrative.”
Ratings woes aside, American adults said they plan to spend $15.3 billion on Super Bowl food, decorations, team merchandise and other items, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey, conducted with Prosper Insights & Analytics.
That figure is up from last year’s $14.1 billion but down from $15.5 billion in 2016. About 82 percent said they planned to buy food for the Super Bowl, up from 80 percent in 2017, while 11 percent said they plan to buy team apparel or accessories, the same figure as last year.
“Consumers are carrying strong spending momentum from the holiday season into their Super Bowl festivities,” Phil Rist, executive vice president of strategy for Prosper, said in a statement. “This is evident through increased plans for purchasing while the number of viewers remains steady with last year. Fans aren’t afraid to spend a few extra dollars to make this year’s game the best one yet.”
NBC Sports Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli said the network will train its cameras on the sidelines if players begin to protest and explained on a recent media call that, “When you’re doing a live event, you just cover what’s happening.”
“We’re obviously here to cover a football game, not a politicized event,” Mr. Gaudelli said in CNNMoney.
The NFL took a public relations hit last week after rejecting a print ad for the Super Bowl program from American Veterans over the phrase #PleaseStand, which the league said violated its policy against political statements.
Critics accused the league of hypocrisy, pointing out that last year’s Super Bowl ads included messages on pay equality and immigration.
More than 84 percent of millennials surveyed said the Super Bowl ads should “just sell products” instead of promoting political messages, according to a poll by The Tylt.
“Super Bowl commercials are supposed to be light and funny,” the Tylt analysis said. “It’s supposed to be entertainment in between the action of the game. No one wants to be force fed a political agenda while they’re scarfing down on wings.”
Other analysts say the biggest predictor of a game’s success is the match-up, which could also pose a problem — especially if the favored New England Patriots take an early lead and fans outside Boston decide they are weary of another Brady-Belichick championship.
“The game is always big, but it appears even NBC is nervous about viewership given their promise to cover the protests,” said Mr. Kuykendall. “It’s as if they’re hoping for controversy just to stir up interest.”
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