Here’s how big the Super Bowl is: Over the past year the Stanley Cup Finals reached 7.6 million viewers, the World Series peaked at 17.2 million viewers, the NBA Finals hit 23.2 million viewers, the college football national title game attracted 25.7 million viewers and the NCAA men’s basketball final drew 28.3 million viewers.
All these epic sporting events combined add up to 102 million viewers… or more than 12 million less than the record 114.4 million Americans who watched the 2015 Super Bowl.
This data is particularly baffling when you consider how the U.S. TV audience has splintered over the years. It’s easy to rack up ratings when you’re competing with maybe two channels and static, which helped Elvis Presley go on Ed Sullivan in 1956 and command a mind-blowing 82.6 percent of viewers (an estimated 54 million people).
As the number of TV sets continued to grow and the entertainment options remained fairly limited, viewership became truly massive, culminating with 1983’s M*A*S*H finale and its 105.9 million viewers.
Then we got cable, DVDs, streaming and so on. Now the audience is fragmented enough that when Friends went off the air in 2004, a meager 52.5 million watched Chandler spew zingers for the last time while tens of millions found other stuff to do.
Yet everyone continues to tune in for the Super Bowl, which has never had fewer than 36 million American viewers or commanded less than 61 percent of the TV sets on at that time.
How the hell did this happen? Here’s a look at the key moments leading to the stranglehold that the Super Bowl now has on our nation’s psyche/eyeballs.