The Super Bowl Reminds Us That Mobile Is – And Is Not – A Threat To Live Sports

The Super Bowl spawns no shortage of media coverage, but I guarantee this is the only place that will manage to weave the big game, mobile disruption, and folk music legend Joni Mitchell together into a single thesis.

The top seven most-watched TV shows in America all are Super Bowls.  This year’s lackluster finale should be the most-watched program of 2016. That’s because 111.9 million of us, on average, were watching the Super Bowl at any given time this year. That’s down slightly from the last year’s record (114 million), but still a monster-size audience.

The fact that the numbers are in decline can be attributed to different things. The most obvious one: the Boston (#8) and Seattle (#14) markets for last year’s Super Bowl participants are larger than this year’s in Denver (#17) and Charlotte (#22).

Here’s an interesting and, probably, coincidental statistic about the drop in TV viewership. CBS reported that a record 3.96 million unique viewers streamed the Super Bowl on a smartphone, tablet, PC or over-the-top TV service this year, breaking last year’s record of 1.3 million. That’s an increase of 2.6 million viewers, which is awfully close to offsetting the 2.1 million fewer people who watched this year’s game on television, compared to last year.

Does this mean that digital viewing is cutting into live sports, disrupting as it has so many other experiences?

The answer depends on how you compare the size of the digital audience.

On the one hand, nearly 4 million streams is a lot in a day and age of diluted media audiences. Here’s a ranking of the top rated cable shows for the first week of February. More people streamed the Super Bowl than watched WWE Monday Night Raw (USA) or ESPN’s prime time NBA broadcast. Impressive.

On the other hand, the digital audience was just 3.5% the size of the population watching on television. That’s in spite of the fact that watching the game digitally was totally free, so access was pretty frictionless. Radio ratings are hard to find, but according to this research, 23 million people listened to Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. Looked at this way, the digital audience seems paltry.

I struggle to formulate an opinion of my own. I can refute every claim I would make about the meaningfulness of this year’s numbers in either direction, which is why Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” has been echoing in my head as I write this.

Back when I worked for Nokia, I recall learning about a discussion a colleague had with one of the world’s biggest operators just prior to the rollout of the LTE network. With so much bandwidth about to come online, this operator believed it was only a matter of time before everything, including calls and texts, would become an app.

This resonates in the world of live sports as more viewers look for low to no-cost digital options. We are moving to more bite-size packages for our media. “Skinny bundles” are replacing expensive packages, including those that include ESPN. (The network has lost 7.2 million viewers in the last three years.) Spotify makes the days of owning songs feel like a bygone age. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that the NFL one day offers an all-inclusive Super Bowl app or service that includes streaming the game and behind the scenes views of press day, the halftime show, and the celebratory parade.

From music to shopping, every digital disruption has begun rather quietly. I’d expect nothing different in the world of sports broadcasting.

Yet I don’t think for a moment phones and tablets will banish big screens from our homes. How broadcasters and leagues deliver sports content may change, but the games themselves always will encourage social gathering and shared experiences. Anything but a television at its core would be woefully under-powered.

Perhaps more than a winner-takes-all replacement for the in-home televised sporting lineup, mobile will be a change agent.


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