Super Bowl

A Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl Would Level Every TV Ratings Record

Plus: Complete Super Bowl TV Ratings, 1967 to 2016

By Published on .

The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski is tackled by the Cowboy's Byron Jones at AT&T Stadium on Oct. 11, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.
The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski is tackled by the Cowboy's Byron Jones at AT&T Stadium on Oct. 11, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. Credit: Mike Stone/Getty Images

While it's a bit premature to start tallying the proverbial hatchlings, the prospect of a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl has Fox and NFL execs alike indulging in the sort of end zone theatrics that would earn a wide receiver a $12,000 fine and a 15-yard penalty. A Feb. 5 meet-up between the league's two biggest TV draws -- and, depending on how much stock you put in sentiment polling, the two most roundly loathed NFL franchises -- would all but certainly shatter every extant TV ratings record while driving the price of Fox's last-minute scatter inventory up into the nosebleed seats.

Vegas oddsmakers have the Pats listed as their prohibitive favorite to suit up for Super Bowl LI, booking them at 3-to-1 on the money line. Dallas is a 4-to-1 favorite; the nearest runner-up is Seattle at 13-to-2. Should the number crunchers on the Strip prove to be correct in their calculations, the advertisers who are investing some $5 million for each 30-second increment of in-game airtime can expect to get a whole lot of bang for their buck. Barring an unlikely blowout or nationwide power outage, a Pats-Cowboys title tilt would be a lock to beat the ratings record set by New England and Seattle in 2015's Super Bowl XLIX.

The Cowboys are the antidote for the NFL's season-long ratings malaise, averaging a jaw-dropping 24.9 million viewers and a 14.6 household rating to date in their nine national windows. (Dallas last night appeared in its tenth national window in a "Sunday Night Football" battle with the New York Giants. Ratings for the NBC broadcast were not available at press time.)

Just ask Fox about the power of a winning Dallas squad; thanks in large part to a schedule that saw the Cowboys featuring in five of its nine slated national windows, the network has bragging rights to the only coast-to-coast NFL package that is attracting more viewers than it did a year ago. (By way of contrast, the aggregate deliveries for the other two national Sunday windows are down 13% compared to the year-ago period.)

In terms of household ratings, New England currently is the NFL's No. 2 TV draw, averaging a 12.3 rating over the course of its four national windows. The Pittsburgh Steelers, another team with an outsized national following that is buttressed by an even more rabid contingent of hate-watchers, is presently edging the Pats in total deliveries, averaging 21.4 million viewers in its seven national windows to Brady and Belichick's 21.2 million.

Wherever you happen to stand on the Cowboys-Pats continuum -- you either buy into the marketing hoo-ah that is Dallas' self-coronation as "America's Team!" and believe that the Pats are the dirtiest cheaters this side of Lance Armstrong, or you think Tom Brady's matinee-idol mug belongs on Mt. Everest and Jerry Jones is basically Emperor Palpatine with a $1.3 billion stadium and a penchant for poorly-executed plastic surgery OR you hate both teams so much it gives you hemiplegic migraine -- it's hard to see any downside to this hypothetical Super Bowl pairing. If nothing else, it would prove to be one of those rare occasions in which the two very best teams square off for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

And should it never come to pass and we get stuck with, say, a reprise of the ghastly, one-sided Seahawks-Broncos snoozer from three years ago? There are worse things that could happen. After all, with an average draw of 112.2 million viewers, that 43-8 Jersey curb-stomping still stands as the No. 2 most-watched TV broadcast in U.S. history.

However things shake out in February, what follows is a graphic, interactive depiction of how Super Sunday has evolved from a low-stakes experiment (the man who hauled in the first Super Bowl touchdown pass was so hungover he couldn't locate his helmet) to the great secular holiday/marketing extravaganza that it is today. You'll also find a series of bullet-points we've unearthed about the Big Game, a compendium of trivia on everything from the goofiest halftime shows to the most forgettable lead-out programming. We've got your rundown of historical Super Bowl ad prices right here.

Super Bowl TV Ratings, 1967-2016
Total average delivery
Household Ratings
See the full table
Super Bowl Date Network HH Rating Total average delivery (viewers P2+) Matchup (winner first)
L Feb. 7, 2016* CBS 46.6 72 111.9 mln Denver - Carolina
XLIX Feb. 1, 2015* NBC 47.5 71 114.4 mln New England - Seattle
XLVIII Feb. 2, 2014* FOX 46.7 69 112.2 mln Seattle - Denver
XLVII Feb. 3 2013* CBS 46.4 69 108.7 mln Baltimore- San Francisco
XLVI Feb. 5 2012* NBC 47.1 71 111.3 mln NY Giants - New England
XLV Feb 6 2011* FOX 46.0 69 111 mln Green Bay - Pittsburgh
XLIV Feb 7 2010* CBS 45.0 68 106.5 mln New Orleans - Indy
XLIII Feb 1 2009* NBC 42.0 64 98.7 mln Pittsburgh - Arizona
XLII Feb 3 2008* FOX 43.1 65 97.4 mln NY Giants - New England
XLI Feb 4 2007* CBS 42.6 64 93.2 mln Indy - Chicago
XL Feb 5 2006* ABC 41.6 62 90.7 mln Pittsburgh - Seattle
XXXIX Feb 6 2005 FOX 41.1 62 86.1 mln New England - Phila
XXXVIII Feb 1 2004 CBS 41.4 63 89.8 mln New England - Carolina
XXXVII Jan 26 2003 ABC 40.7 61 88.6 mln Tampa Bay - Oakland
XXXVI Feb 3 2002 FOX 40.4 61 86.8 mln New England - St. Louis
XXXV Jan 28 2001 CBS 40.4 61 84.3 mln Baltimore - NY Giants
XXXIV Jan 30 2000 ABC 43.3 63 88.5 mln St. Louis - Tenn.
XXXIII Jan 31 1999 FOX 40.2 61 83.7 mln Denver - Atlanta
XXXII Jan 25 1998 NBC 44.5 67 90 mln Denver - Green Bay
XXXI Jan 26 1997 FOX 43.3 65 87.9 mln Green Bay - New England
XXX Jan 28 1996 NBC 46 68 94.1 mln Dallas - Pittsburgh
XXIX Jan 29 1995 ABC 41.3 62 83.4 mln San Francisco - San Diego
XXVIII Jan 30 1994 NBC 45.5 66 90 mln Dallas - Buffalo
XXVII Jan 31 1993 NBC 45.1 66 91 mln Dallas - Buffalo
XXVI Jan 26 1992 CBS 40.3 61 79.6 mln Washington - Buffalo
XXV Jan 27 1991 ABC 41.9 63 79.5 mln NY Giants - Buffalo
XXIV Jan 28 1990 CBS 39 63 73.9 mln San Francisco - Denver
XXIII Jan 22 1989 NBC 43.5 68 81.6 mln San Francisco - Cincinnati
XXII Jan 31 1988 ABC 41.9 62 80.1 mln Washington - Denver
XXI Jan 25 1987 CBS 45.8 66 87.2 mln NY Giants - Denver
XX Jan 26 1986 NBC 48.3 70 92.6 mln Chicago - New England
XIX Jan 20 1985 ABC 46.4 63 85.5 mln San Francisco - Miami
XVIII Jan 22 1984 CBS 46.4 71 77.6 mln LA Raiders - Washington
XVII Jan 30 1983 NBC 48.6 69 81.8 mln Washington - Miami
XVI Jan 24 1982 CBS 49.1 73 85.2 mln San Francisco - Cincinnati
XV Jan 25 1981 NBC 44.4 63 68.3 mln Oakland - Philadelphia
XIV Jan 20 1980 CBS 46.3 67 76.2 mln Pittsburgh - LA Rams
XIII Jan 21 1979 NBC 47.1 74 74.7 mln Pittsburgh - Dallas
XII Jan 15 1978 CBS 47.2 67 78.9 mln Dallas - Denver
XI Jan 09 1977 NBC 44.4 73 62.1 mln Oakland - Minnesota
X Jan 18 1976 CBS 42.3 78 57.7 mln Pittsburgh - Dallas
IX Jan 12 1975 NBC 42.4 72 56.1 mln Pittsburgh - Minnesota
VIII Jan 13 1974 CBS 41.6 73 51.8 mln Miami - Minnesota
VII Jan 14 1973 NBC 42.7 72 53.3 mln Miami - Washington
VI Jan 16 1972 CBS 44.2 74 56.6 mln Dallas - Miami
V Jan 17 1971 NBC 39.9 75 46 mln Baltimore - Dallas
IV Jan 11 1970 CBS 39.4 69 44.3 mln Kansas City - Minnesota
III Jan 12 1969 NBC 36 70 41.7 mln NY Jets - Baltimore
II Jan 14 1968 CBS 36.8 68 39.1 mln Green Bay - Oakland
I Jan 15 1967 CBS 22.6 43 26.8 mln Green Bay - Kansas City
I Jan 15 1967 NBC 18.5 36 24.4 mln Green Bay - Kansas City
*2006-16 data is culled from Nielsen live + same day measurements; all other years reflect live viewing.
Note: Super Bowl I aired simultaneously on CBS & NBC. This game is the only Super Bowl to have been broadcast in the US by two TV networks simultaneously. At the time, CBS held the rights to nationally televise all NFL games while NBC was the AFL rights holder.
  • Despite airing on NBC and CBS simultaneously, Super Bowl I (originally billed as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game) was not preserved for posterity by either network. No recording of the game in its entirety exists today, as both networks "wiped" their respective tapes in order to record other content. (NBC is believed to have recorded a soap opera over Super Bowl I.) What little footage remains includes Packer QB Bart Starr's 37-yard TD pass to Max McGee early in the first quarter; having hit the hay at 6:30 a.m. after a bibulous night on the town, the veteran wide receiver is believed to be the most hungover man to haul in a score on Super Sunday. Some guys give 100%, Max McGee gave 100 proof.
  • A technical glitch caused NBC to return too late for the start of the second half of Super Bowl I. As such, the kickoff was halted by the referee and Green Bay kicker Don Chandler was only given the green light once NBC was back on-air.
  • Per Nielsen Monitor-Plus data, the average cost of a 30-second spot in Super Bowl I was $42,500 a pop for marketers who bought time in the CBS broadcast and $37,500 for those who targeted NBC viewers. The reason for the discrepancy: CBS was the NFL's TV partner, whereas NBC aired the upstart AFL's games. As such, buyers suspected that the home network of the establishment would draw more viewers. That was indeed the case, although CBS didn't exactly blow NBC out of the water, out-delivering its rival by a margin of just 2.8 million total viewers.
  • Super Bowl V marked the first of four halftime show appearances by the inexplicably popular Up With People, a troupe of relentlessly upbeat Stepford Children who made the saccharine Osmonds look like the Velvet Underground. An occasional target of "The Simpsons," which lampooned the cheerily cultish bunch of well-mannered teens (in Springfield, they are known as "Hurray for Everything!"), Up With People marked a sort of middle period between the pro forma collegiate marching band performances that helped kill time during the earliest Super Bowl halftime broadcasts and the mini concerts staged by the likes of U2, Paul McCartney, Prince, The Who and BeyoncĂ© in the contemporary amusing-ourselves-to-death era. For all the retrospective snark about Up With People (and by golly, they were a squeaky-clean nightmare), there have been worse acts to warble and covort during America's great bathroom break. Modern-day head scratchers include an expanded version of the Blue Brothers featuring Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and bonus belter John Goodman; the singularly untalented vodka shill P. Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean Combs; apologetic one-hit wonders LMFAO; and the staggeringly dumb, soulless dance-pop confection Black Eyed Peas.
  • After the inaugural NFL-AFL showdown delivered an aggregate 51.2 million viewers, it took five years for the now-unified Super Bowl to top that mark. CBS' broadcast of the sixth installment, a 24-3 Dallas blowout of Miami, averaged 56.6 million viewers. Super Bowl VI also was the last to be blacked out in the local market -- in this case, New Orleans. Under the NFL's insanely draconian pre-1973 blackout rules, no games were aired within a 75-mile radius of the home stadium, even if said venue were sold out. Thus, the first half-dozen Super Bowls were unavailable to fans in the host cities and their surrounding DMAs. Under pressure from a football-crazed President Nixon, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle agreed to overturn the blackout rule for Super Bowl VII provided the L.A. Memorial Coliseum sold out 10 days before the opening kickoff. (Rozelle's blackout policy was an anomalous blind spot, given his role in optimizing the NFL's TV footprint. In 1970, the commish managed to get ABC chief Roone Arledge to bite on his unprecedented "Monday Night Football" concept.)
  • The first primetime Super Bowl was staged relatively late in the game, so to speak, when the Cowboys and Broncos kicked off their Super Bowl XII showdown inside the Louisiana Superdome on Jan. 15, 1978 -- nearly a decade after NBC aired the inaugural World Series night game (Oct. 13, 1971). The Cowboys' Doomsday Defense all but vivisected Denver's offense, but shifting the kickoff to 6:17 p.m. EST proved to be a boon for the ratings. Per Nielsen, Dallas' 27-10 victory drew an average crowd of 78.9 million viewers to CBS, which marked a 27% increase when compared to the year-earlier delivery on NBC (62.1 million). The significant lift in the ratings didn't quite justify the 77% rate hike CBS passed on to its advertisers, but no matter; but for a few outlier years, pricing for Super Bowl inventory has been on a steep upward trajectory since that night in 1978.
  • As one might expect, as the Super Bowl transitioned to a primetime slot, the host network immediately seized upon the opportunity to make its lead-out program something of an event. Shortly after the Cowboys collected their second Lombardi Trophy, CBS aired a new episode of its veteran sitcom "All in the Family." The game that millions of Americans had just watched played a key role in the episode, as Archie Bunker oversaw what turns out to be the worst Super Bowl party in TV history. (Long story short: Two goons, one clad in a satin Mets warmup jacket, rob Archie's bar and force the aggrieved patrons to drop trou.) The episode averaged 35.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched Super Bowl comedy lead-out for nearly 20 years, or up until NBC's super-sized "Friends" spectacular drew 52.9 million viewers in 1996.
  • While Super Bowl lead-out slots demonstrably have little to no bearing on the longevity of a given show, a handful of series that debuted immediately after the Big Game proved to be all-out busts. Among the shows that premiered on Super Sunday only to fold within a handful of subsequent airings are the 1990 John Schneider vehicle "Grand Slam," which was canceled five weeks after immediately following Super Bowl XXIV, and the James Brolin drama "Extreme," which ABC mothballed six weeks after it debuted out of the lopsided 49ers-Chargers game in 1995. On the flip side, some of the more successful shows that premiered in TV's most-scrutinized time slot include NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," which thrived for seven seasons despite being born under a bad sign -- the peerless procedural launched after the Cowboys' 52-17 dismantling of the hapless Buffalo Bills. And Fox's "Family Guy" is still plugging away nearly 18 years after it made its first gratuitously inconsequential cutaway gag in the wake of Fox's presentation of Super Bowl XXXIII.
  • Disney kicked off its long running "I'm Going to Disney World!" campaign in 1987, moments after the New York Giants secured their first Super Bowl title. Giants QB Phil Simms, who engineered a near-perfect offensive attack, somewhat muffed the line ("I'm gonna go to Disney World!"), for which he was paid a reported $75,000. As it happens, Super Bowl XXI gave rise to two sports traditions, as the victorious G-Men treated head coach Bill Parcells to the first nationally televised Gatorade shower.
  • Super Bowl XXIX marked the first time a network charged north of $1 million for an in-game spot. Just five years hence, ABC would go on to chalk up another Super Bowl record, becoming the first network to command $2 million for a 30-second slice of airtime in 2000. In a show of escalation unmatched since the Cold War, NBC hit $3 million in 2009, Fox surpassed $4 million in 2014 and CBS locked in a number of $5 million units in 2016.
  • During the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, the republic lost its collective innocence when a woman's areola was made visible to an audience of some 143.6 million viewers for a nanosecond. Today, Nipplegate is remembered for how it destroyed the very pillars of American society and ended the career of the caddish former teen idol Justin "Dick in a Box" Timberlake. In a noble effort to uphold decency and national probity, the Federal Communications Commission spent the better part of a decade trying to collect a $550,000 fine from CBS before the Supreme Court dismissed the claim. Lessons learned: Corporate synergy exercised without forethought is witless (this was in the final throes of the CBS-Viacom mash-up), and everyone from Jimmy Fallon's favorite former Mouseketeer to that foaming-at-the-mouth columnist who looks like one of the town elders in "Footloose" still owes Janet Jackson an apology.
  • The first broadcast to smash through the 100 million-viewer barrier was Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, which saw a New Orleans Saints franchise closing out its first championship appearance in a 31-17 victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. CBS drew 106.5 million viewers on the night, demolishing the year-earlier record of 98.7 million viewers set by NBC's coverage of the Steelers' waning-seconds defeat of the Cardinals. The Saints-Colts record would stand for exactly 365 days, at which time the Green Bay-Pittsburgh Super Bowl XLV matchup on Fox averaged 111 million viewers. (Whenever a new high-water mark is established, it is almost immediately made irrelevant; in the last five years, three Super Bowl broadcasts have drawn north of that Packers-Steelers contest.)
  • According to Kantar Media estimates, Super Bowl 50 featured 49 minutes and 35 seconds of advertising and promotional messaging, making it the second most-cluttered NFL broadcast of all time. The most commercialized game was Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, which was also presented by CBS. That contest included 51 minutes and 40 seconds of sponsor and/or promo material, with paid ads accounting for 41 minutes and 20 seconds of the broadcast.
  • Assuming a baseline price of $5 million per spot, the average cost of a single second of time in Super Bowl LI shakes out to $166,666, or a little more than 125 times the price of admission for a single tick in Super Bowl I. Also, the three terminal digits of the aforementioned projection should convince anyone who isn't a fan of either team that the Cowboys and Patriots are all but destined to butt heads in this year's NFL title tilt. Should that come to pass -- and every marketer with skin in the game could ask for no better outcome -- Fox's average delivery will come within an eyelash of 120 million total viewers. In the words of the savvy, spavined Jets QB who almost single-handedly transformed the AFL-NFL World Championship Game into the Super Bowl, I guarantee it.
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