The National Football League has not had a great year. Whether it was the debate over players taking a knee during the national anthem or questions about concussions and player safety, the NFL found itself facing near-constant backlash. That at least partly contributed to lower ratings all year long.
It's possible some of the season-long ratings issues were driven by over-saturation, specifically fans being tired of Thursday night games and bad Monday night match-ups. However, the news did not get any better during the playoffs, when ratings for the divisional championship round were down 16%. In addition, the conference championships saw the average number of people watching both games combined fall from 47.1 million last year to 43.2 million this year, according to ESPN.
That may be a drop, but it's still a huge number of viewers in a fractured TV world where the top regularly scheduled network programs delivered just under 20 million viewers according to Nielsen data. And even if the numbers fall a little, that makes the Super Bowl, which drew an average of 111.3 million viewers in 2017, the top-rated program of the year.
Because of that audience, the network airing the Super Bowl has been able to charge $5 million for an ad spot each of the past two years. This year, controversy or not, the matchup of the New England Patriots versus the Philadelphia Eagles looks set to push that number even higher.
How much is a Super Bowl ad?
Super Bowl ad rates have been a little stagnant over the past few years. Of course, just keeping rates at $5 million per 30-second spot is a sort of victory. For the 2018 game, which will air on NBC, Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch reported that an advertising executive for the network said that this year's ads will average over $5 million-per-30 seconds.
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What does this mean?
While overall NFL ratings have suffered, there's simply no other event that delivers an audience that compares to that of the Super Bowl. For example, the top-rated non-NFL show of 2017 was the Oscars, which delivered 34,179,000 viewers, around one-third of the audience for the Super Bowl.
Advertisers pay to reach eyeballs, and the Super Bowl delivers on that. The big game is one of the few events that very few people watch later in order to skip the commercials, at least partly because it's nearly impossible to avoid hearing the result immediately after the game.
In addition, the Super Bowl has the added advantage of the ads being a sort of content of their own for casual fans. There is simply no other time of year when every ad on a program is rated, ranked, and covered as a new story in its own right.
Those factors all add up to advertising being worth it, even at more than $5 million for 30 seconds. It's a risk, since bad ads get forgotten, but it's also a huge stage to launch a new product or make a major splash that clearly still appeals to enough brands to keep prices rising, even if only by a little.