If iconic television events were ranked in order of importance, the Super Bowl would probably be at the top of that list. After half a century, it has become far more than just another sporting contest—it's a social and cultural event that eclipses almost anything else, at least for a few hours. The top three most watched TV events in U.S. history were all Super Bowls, and they make up most of the Top Ten.
Television as we know it, however, is in the midst of a wave of disruption unlike anything we have seen since color TV first arrived. An entire generation seems to be giving up on cable and moving to streaming services, or just getting their sports clips from YouTube and Facebook. So what happens to the Super Bowl in this rapidly changing environment?
So far, the big game has managed to not just hang on to a TV audience, but actually increase it, at a time when very few TV events can say the same. Last year, the game attracted the largest audience in history: More than 114 million viewers tuned in. And because of the way that Nielsen measures TV viewing, that number doesn't even include the millions of people who watched the Super Bowl at a bar or in some other venue, only how many tuned in on their television sets at home.
For the time being, the Super Bowl retains a kind of magical hold on sports fans, who want to watch the game in a social setting with family and friends. That's the kind of "appointment viewing" that holds up the best against digital streaming and other services, because the in-person aspect is such a huge part of the experience.
That's not to say the Super Bowl has to be watched on a traditional television set, however. Last year's game was streamed to more than 1.3 million people via the NBC website, and in the future the networks that hold the broadcast rights might decide to broaden that capability even further.
As TV devices like Google's Chromecast and the Roku box proliferate, it becomes easier to stream almost anything to a television, and even cable companies are being pressured by the Federal Communications Commission to open up their set-top boxes to outside providers. In a sense, the TV set is becoming just another screen on which consumers can display whatever they wish.
Digital on the Rise
Regardless of what kind of device they are ultimately viewed on, live digital broadcasts of sporting events seem likely to become more common. Last October, an NFL game aired exclusively online for the first time, after Yahoo paid an estimated $20 million for the rights to a game between Buffalo and Jacksonville.
That game attracted more than 33 million viewers, the NFL said, and while online viewing and TV viewing aren't directly comparable, that's still an impressive number for something that wasn't a big-name match-up. Of course, Yahoo also made the stream free to view.
The NFL says it is looking for a digital partner who might want to stream Thursday Night Football broadcasts, after signing a deal that split the traditional broadcast rights between CBS and NBC. Yahoo might be interested, since sports fans are a big part of its user base—but Apple and YouTube are both potential bidders as well.
Could any of these digital giants, or even Netflix or Hulu, become the new go-to host of the Super Bowl at some point? It's certainly possible—but not until 2022 at the earliest, because CBS, NBC and Fox have the rights to the contest sewn up until then, as part of a multibillion-dollar deal signed in 2012. So while you might be watching Super Bowl 52 or 55 streamed to your TV via Chromecast or Amazon's FireTV stick, or through a set of VR goggles that attach to the TV, or as a hologram beamed into the bar of your choice, it will probably be coming to you via one of the three networks.
By 2022, the world of television will almost certainly look very different than it does now. If "cord cutting" and streaming services and mobile viewing become an even larger phenomenon, as most industry watchers believe they will, the hold that the major networks have over what people watch could be much reduced.
In fact, one risk for CBS, NBC and Fox is that by the time the rights to the Super Bowl are up for grabs, the billions they spent to lock up that contract for the current decade may look like money they could have spent elsewhere adapting to the digital disruption taking place all around them. Not only that, but the broadcast networks could be so weak by that point that they will be unable to pay enough to lock up future Super bowl rights—making it even more likely that the chance to air the big game will be snapped up by a digital giant like Apple or Google.