A Look Back at the Evolution of the Super Bowl

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NEW YORK—It’s pretty hard to miss Super Bowl Sunday. Regardless of whether or not their team makes the big game, millions of Americans and international viewers tune in every year to watch the action. The Super Bowl is, after all, America’s biggest TV event, each and every year. But it hasn’t always been that way—and, by the looks of it, it might not always be that way either.

The first ever Super Bowl was played on January 15, 1967 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl I, defeating the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs 35—10. In a move that seems almost impossible today, both NBC and CBS broadcast the game simultaneously because, at the time, CBS held the rights to NFL games and NBC held the rights to AFL games.

And Super Bowl I was unique in more ways than one. According to The Sport Digest, the first ever Super Bowl (called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game at the time) was the only Super Bowl not to be a sellout—in fact, there were 33,000 empty seats in the Coliseum, which sat 94,000. Ticket prices were set at $12, $10 and $6, while TV ads cost just $42,000 for 30 seconds.

Yes—just. Today, a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl will set you back about $5.25 million, according to CNBC, and the average ticket price is a whopping $3,650, according to Forbes.

But while the Super Bowl remains America’s most watched TV event of the year, and its cost remains high, viewership numbers have been dwindling since 2015.

According to Sports Illustrated, Super Bowl XLIX, in 2015, was the most watched Super Bowl ever, as well as America’s most watched TV program of all time, boasting 114.4 million American viewers. So far, however, 2015 has been the peak: in 2016, viewership dropped to 111.9 million, according to Statista, then fell to 111.3 million in 2017, and was just 103.4 million in 2018. There are a number of factors that could explain why viewership has dwindled so much over the years, from fewer people watching TV in general, to the NFL’s numerous controversies in recent years—in fact, Sports Illustrated reports that the NFL’s television ratings have dropped roughly 10 percent this season alone.

Despite these falling ratings, consumers are still spending some serious cash on Super Bowl parties and preparation. According to the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics, 72 percent of adults are planning on watching the big game, which is down from last year’s 76 percent. But of those 72 percent, 79 percent plan to buy food and drink for the game, 10 percent plan to buy team apparel and accessories, 7 percent plan to buy decorations, an additional 7 percent plan to buy new TVs, and 4 percent plan to buy new furniture for the game. On average, adults plan to spend $81 to help them celebrate this year’s Super Bowl.

Despite falling ratings, it doesn’t look like the Super Bowl will lose its cultural significance any time soon. And for those of us who don’t like football, it’s still a great excuse to gather round the TV, snack on some buffalo wings, and enjoy spending time with the ones we love.