The New England Patriots bid a dramatic goodbye to their perfect season on Sunday, losing to the Denver Broncos in snowy overtime. In a season in which the Patriots have become football’s consensus villain, many cheered their misfortune.
But the National Football League shouldn’t be happy.
Eight weeks into the current NFL season, four teams were still undefeated. In week nine, the Broncos lost, leaving three teams. In week ten, the Cincinnati Bengals lost, leaving two. After last night, only the Carolina Panthers remain.
That’s happy news for Patriots haters, of which there are plenty—maybe especially at the NFL offices, given that Commissioner Roger Goodell is still pursuing legal action against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over last season’s Deflategate scandal. Many fans and pundits have reasoned that it would be the ultimate embarrassment for the league if the team it has antagonized for the past year returns to the Super Bowl again. Based on that theory, Goodell must be delighted to see the Patriots lose.
But the marketability of a Super Bowl between two undefeated teams would have outweighed that schadenfreude.
Had the Patriots and Panthers both gone 16-0 and defeated their early playoff opponents, the NFL would have had a branding bonanza on its hands. No Super Bowl has ever had a matchup of two undefeated teams. The NFL and its broadcast partner CBS would have marketed the hell out of such a distinction, likely generating unprecedented ratings.
Super Bowl XLII in 2007, featuring the 16-0 Patriots against an underdog New York Giants team, set a then-record with 97.5 million viewers. But ratings fell the following year with more conventional participants. Ratings have gone up since then — 2015 set an all-time high with 114.5 million viewers — and this year’s game will likely follow the trend, but it would have been bigger if the league could have boasted that the winner would get bragging rights to being the best team in history, with a final record of 19-0 (topping the 1972 Miami Dolphins, which went 17-0 thanks to a shorter regular season).
The Patriots and Panthers could still very well meet in the Super Bowl. But it won’t be the same.
According to secondary-market ticketing site Tickpick, the average price for tickets to the Patriots’ next two home games, against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tennessee Titans, dropped nearly 10% after the team lost. Fans are less excited to see a team that is very good than they are to see a team that might be the best ever.
The NFL has already turned Super Bowl 50, for which it is dropping the Roman numerals, into a mega promotional vehicle. Every stadium has had its 50 yard-line numbers painted gold; the official colors of the NFL shield have been changed for the season and the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee has been quietly operating a national “50 Tour” in which famous players who won rings in the Bay Area show off the Lombardi Trophy.
The average fan doesn’t much care that this is the 50th Super Bowl. It’s meaningless symbolism. But a Super Bowl 50 with two 16-0 teams? That’s the kind of unprecedented marquee that would have brought even the football-averse to their televisions on February 7.