The Super Bowl is one of television’s biggest annual events, one that attracts viewers world-wide and advertisers willing to shell out millions for air time. But that wasn’t always the case. Still, as the NFL has evolved into the most popular television sport in America and beyond, thus has the Super Bowl.
The early Super Bowls weren’t even called that at the time. They were just a matchup between the American Football League and National Football League champions when the two leagues were headed for a merger. The Green Bay Packers won those first two games. Then in 1969, ahead of Super Bowl III between the AFL’s New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts of the NFL, Jets quarterback Joe Namath made his famous prediction that the Jets would win. They did, and all that surrounds that moment and that game is part of the NFL’s nostalgic history.
With the 1970s came the expansion of the NFL and more games on TV, including Monday Night Football. The Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys won a combined eight Super Bowls during that decade, and to this day have some of the biggest fan bases among NFL teams. TV ratings peaked in 1978 when the Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII in what was the first prime time Super Bowl as opposed to an afternoon game. Nearly 79 million viewers tuned in; a number that wouldn’t be surpassed until 1982 when more than 82 million viewers watched Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers start what would be their 1980’s dynasty with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
Still growing, nearly 93 million tuned in to watch the Chicago Bears rip apart the New England Patriots in 1986 and cap one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Ratings and viewer numbers would fluctuate throughout the rest of the 1980s and most of the 1990s. The three Super Bowls the Cowboys played in during ’90s all had over 90 million viewers, including 1996 with a then-record 94 million viewers. The Super Bowl wouldn’t see that type of viewership again until 2008, and since then it’s been through the roof with a now-record audience of 114 million tuning in to Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in 2015.
This year’s viewership will depend on a few factors. First and foremost is fan interests in the players and the teams. Then there is also the political unrest over players protesting by kneeling during the National Anthem, which will likely affect the ratings, with patriotic viewers vowing to at least wait until kick-off to tune in, or skip the game entirely. When it’s all over, the numbers will tell the real story.