America is a divided nation. I’m not just talking about when it comes to who we choose to represent us in government. I’m talking about the choices we make down to as mundane as where we shop for food. But in this world where residents of the United States can never seem to agree, there is one massive event where Americans of all stripes find common ground.
The Super Bowl and the NFL in general seem to bring together Americans in a way few other things can.
In an era of streaming and cable television, most programs capture only a small portion of America’s over 330 million-person population. Last year, the highest non-football program was the State of the Union, which under 40 million Americans watched – the viewership this year was even lower.
When it came to the highest-rated non-sports show on one network, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on NBC took the prize; a mere 22 million Americans tuned into that.
The Super Bowl, meanwhile, was watched by nearly 100 million people on NBC last year. When you combine streaming and Spanish language broadcast, viewership topped 110 million.
Last year was no anomaly either: the Super Bowl has crossed the 100 million viewership threshold over 10 times. The only non-Super Bowl show ever to hit those numbers was the series finale of M*A*S*H, which aired 40 years ago.
No other non-Super Bowl show has ever come close to that, and I’m not sure it ever will.
The way the Super Bowl is able to unite Americans is a few fold. Part of it has to do with the popularity of football in America (more on that in a second), but there’s a lot more to it.
The Super Bowl is a bunch of shows wrapped into one. It’s the only spectacle I know of where people watch just for the commercials. SSRS polling shows that 24% of people who watch the Super Bowl say their favorite thing about the game is the commercials. No wonder that the price of a 30-second ad is going to cost advertisers about $7 million this year.
The Super Bowl is also a much-raved about music show at halftime. Big stars have been performing at the Super Bowl for over 30 years now. This year, it is Rihanna – who has sold hundreds of millions of records and won nine Grammys – making her live-music return. Over 10% of people who watch the big game say the halftime show is their favorite thing.
The evolution of the Super Bowl halftime show
But I’d argue that the ability for the Super Bowl and the NFL to be so popular ultimately comes down to the fact that it bridges the partisan divide in our country.
We can see this well in Google searches.
For most topics, there is some sort of correlation between how states voted in the last presidential election and how many people in a given state are searching for said topic. There is a very strong correlation, for example, between searches for the Academy Awards and vote patterns in the 2020 presidential election with states Biden won far more likely to have interest in the Oscars.
The Oscars, not surprisingly, have seen their ratings fall from nearly 60 million in the late 1990s to less than 20 million today.
The Super Bowl has maintained its high ratings in part because there is basically no correlation between past voting patterns and interest in the Super Bowl according to Google searches.
This shouldn’t be surprising given what I had previously found. Blue states and red states have never seen a big divide in terms of how they search for the NFL overall. The NFL is unique in this regard, as most major sports show some geographic correlation with past election results.
And we’re not just seeing the lack of a red and blue divide on Google. We see it in the polling as well.
A Washington Post poll taken in 2022 found that 67% of Americans were fans of football. No other sport tested topped 50%. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 66% were fans. For Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 70% were fans. It was the only sport where more than 50% of both Democrats and Republicans were fans of the sport.
There hasn’t been a lot of recent polling that meets CNN’s standards for publication on Super Bowl fandom specifically, but the polling we do have suggests that the adulation Americans have for football specifically carries over to the big game.
A Monmouth University poll from 2019 found that there was just a four-point difference between the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who were going to watch the Super Bowl.
About the only thing that does divide Americans when it comes to the Super Bowl is “Who do I root for?” On that issue, I say follow your heart. I’m hoping for a nice, clean game.