The Superbowl. The NFL calls it the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ and there is a widely held belief in North America that it is the single most important event on the sporting calendar. But the reality is that, at least in terms of global impact/audience, that’s very far from the truth.
The World Cup and the Olympic Games are by some distance the most watched sporting events globally. The Rugby World Cup, with viewing figures estimated in excess of 4 billion, dwarfs viewing figures for the Superbowl (estimated average 115 million per year). Those events of course only take place every 4 years however and there’s also an argument that those comparisons aren’t fair, given that they are tournament events spread over multiple weeks, versus figures for an individual game. Global viewership of the World Cup Final and the Olympic Men’s 100m final though, as just two examples, would put that dispute to rest.
Besides, the Superbowl does not even top the list of annual sporting behemoths when it comes to global audience. The final of the Champions League attracts more global viewers than the NFL’s showpiece event (estimated 350m), as do some cricket matches, namely those involving India (the India v Pakistan T20 final last year reached 730 million viewers in India alone, and likely surpassed a billion worldwide). There is also some, albeit inconsistent, evidence to suggest that the biggest Premier League matches are more watched globally than the Superbowl, aided by the influence of English football – that’s soccer for those across the Atlantic – in the Far East. Meanwhile the Superbowl of Spain’s La Liga, the at least twice-annual battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona known as ‘El Clasico’, also trumps the gridiron event. Global audience for the outlet in which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do battle is estimated at 400 million by the likes of Forbes, CNN and ESPN.
Then again, the ‘Greatest Show in North America’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Even in the eyes of many ardent American Football fans, the drama on the field in recent years hasn’t exactly lived up to it’s billing either. Highly commercialised, it seems the advertisements and famed half-time show are more important than the football itself. That was until last night however, when the Man with the Golden Arm inspired a New England Patriots comeback for the ages and a game that finally warranted the Superbowl’s tagline.
After trailing the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 with just over a quarter to play, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lead his team to a remarkable comeback victory, to win Superbowl LI 34-28 after overtime. It was a result that perhaps confirmed Brady’s standing as the greatest quarterback, if not the greatest player in NFL history. It was the first Superbowl to go into overtime in it’s 51 years, adding to the drama, and marked a rare occurrence where the following day, the game was actually talked about more than the half-time concert. Commiserations to both the Falcons, and Lady Gaga.
A Superbowl boosted by the quality and spectacle of the competition rather than forced build-up and razzmatazz can only be good for a sport that wishes to boost it’s appeal worldwide. Modern soccer is dominated by riches, but it is the legendary matches and top-level performers like Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo and Messi, as well as the sport’s history of course, that have maintained it’s standing as the most-widely followed past-time on the planet. Kids in every continent pick up a ball and dream of being one of those icons, while that sentiment for American football is pretty much restricted to the fifty states.
There are however continuing shoots of growth in that respect. A 2015 report by German-based researchers Repucom found that the sport’s fanbase had grown in Russia and China, with the latter in particular a huge opportunity for potential market growth given it’s 1.3 billion inhabitants and a developing professional league. NFL regular season games are now held annually at Wembley in London, while games have also been played at Arsenal’s Emirates and plans are in place for future ties at Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground. This season, the NFL returned to Mexico City for the first time since 2005. There’s a chance that Germany will host it’s first NFL game in 2017.
Superbowl 51 is already being lauded as possibly the greatest game in the event’s history and coupled with the progressive plans in place for growth, that should act as a catalyst for boom. Maybe in a generation’s time, without the need for excessive self-promotion, the spectacle held on the first Sunday in February may legitimately lay claim to being the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’.