Despite having to reschedule more than 15 games due to COVID-19, and despite criticism for not building in extra bye weeks and for allowing in-person fans at some games, the NFL got through its pandemic season without having to cancel a single game.
Now its reward is a Super Bowl 55 matchup that is expected to deliver ratings gold.
The Kansas City Chiefs, led by 25-year-old quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, will face off in Florida on Sunday in the first-ever Super Bowl hosted at the home stadium of one of the teams in the game. It will also be the first time the starting quarterbacks are the two most-recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. Mahomes has won one championship and was the 2018 league MVP; Brady has won six and was the 2017 league MVP, his third MVP trophy. Brady, in his first year with Tampa Bay, is appearing in his 10th Super Bowl.
Some have called it a dream scenario for the league, at the end of a nightmarish season.
That’s not to say the pandemic didn’t take a financial toll on the league. NFL franchises lost an estimated $100 million in revenue per team, according to CBS, which would come to $3.2 billion. (MLB lost more than $3 billion in revenue from its shortened 2020 season, the NBA had a shortfall of $1.5 billion, and the NHL lost $1 billion, and Major League Soccer lost $1 billion.)
But the NFL, with 2019 revenue of $16 billion, can withstand the hit better than any of the others.
Thus the biggest business story lines to watch this Super Bowl are the same as they always are—but each pillar has been affected by the pandemic.
It was a well-worn story: TV ratings last summer and fall were down across the board for live pro sports, especially NBA, MLB, NHL, and golf.
The NFL was no exception: its regular season viewership fell 8% on average.
Was it the mental toll of the pandemic? The distraction of the presidential election? (That was the NFL’s chosen explanation.) More important social concerns, like the Black Lives Matter movement? The weirdness of not seeing live crowds at most games? Was it an indicator of a more troubling, long-term macro viewership shift for the leagues?
Whatever the reason, viewership turned around for the conference championship games on Jan. 24. The NFC Championship between the Buccaneers and the Packers (and between veterans Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) averaged 45 million viewers and had a peak audience of 53 million, making it the most watched NFC Championship since 2017, four seasons ago. The AFC Championship drew around 42 million viewers, up a decent 2% from last year's same game.
Those numbers bode well for Super Bowl ratings—if the game stays close. And with many Americans staying home amid the pandemic as opposed to going to parties or bars, it should mean more household televisions tuned to CBS. 72% of Americans say they don’t plan to attend a Super Bowl party this year, according to WalletHub.
The death toll of the pandemic certainly hangs over this Super Bowl, and over all sports in 2020 and 2021. Considering that reality, you can expect to see a lot of serious, emotional ads about the pandemic and themes like family, togetherness, and frontline health care workers—think of Chrysler’s iconic "Imported from Detroit" Super Bowl ad in 2011 featuring Eminem and credited with helping Detroit climb back from the 2008 recession.
Amid that backdrop, some of the biggest perennial advertisers are sitting this one out: Budweiser, Coke, Pepsi, Audi, and Hyundai are not running Super Bowl ads. That's two of last year’s three biggest advertisers. (Budweiser parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev will still run ads for Bud Light and Michelob brands.)
But the pandemic hasn’t done much to blunt the ad spot price. ViacomCBS (VIAC) sought $5.5 million for 30 seconds this year, down a touch from the $5.6 million Fox fetched last year, which marks the first Super Bowl ad price drop in years, even if it’s negligible a price drop. According to Kantar, Fox reaped a grand total $448 million from Super Bowl advertisers last year. And despite the pandemic, Variety reports that CBS was “virtually sold out” of its ad inventory by last week.
Even amid the pandemic, legal betting defined the sports business in 2020.
26 states (plus Washington, D.C.) have now either launched legal sports betting or passed legislation and are waiting to launch. Mobile sports betting (on smartphones) must be legalized separately, and 12 states have done so. Betting operators like DraftKings (which went public in April via SPAC), FanDuel (owned by Flutter Entertainment), MGM, William Hill, and Penn National Gaming have ridden the wave of legalization, racing to launch sports betting apps, and their stock prices have surged as a result.
In the NFL, where the league recently began allowing NFL franchises to sign team-specific casino sponsorships (separate from the league’s Caesars deal), the Dallas Cowboys jumped first, with casino sponsor WinStar. At the same time, dozens of NFL and other pro teams have signed sports betting partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel, or BetMGM. And the Las Vegas Raiders began playing in their new stadium this season, a few miles from the casino strip; many onlookers thought they’d never see the day the NFL would let a team call Sin City home.
Thanks to the tide of state-by-state legalization, the American Gaming Association says Super Bowl 55 will generate the largest legal single-event betting handle ever—but also projects, based on a survey conducted with Morning Consult, that the number of Americans placing a bet will drop 37% from last year to 23.2 million people, “almost entirely caused by” the pandemic.
The NFL is allowing 22,000 fans into the stadium in Tampa—one-third of the stadium’s normal 65,000-seat capacity. That number includes 7,500 vaccinated frontline health care workers going to the game for free, which leaves 14,500 tickets on the open market. (Masks will be strictly required, the NFL says.)
The day after the NFL announced it would allow 22,000 fans, the average listing price on secondary-market resale sites spiked by 16%.
On Monday, Jan. 25, the day after the final matchup was set, resale prices soared. TickPick, as one example, saw the highest average price the site has ever recorded: $23,371. That was 188% higher than the day after the AFC and NFC Championship games in 2020.
And the "get-in" or lowest prices available on resale sites soared above $8,000 – a 30% spike from last year and the most expensive get-in prices since 2010, with the exception of 2015, an anomaly year now infamous in the Super Bowl ticket industry. (The average price of a ticket to the past five Super Bowls was $5,506, according to WalletHub.)
Prices have since dipped down, but the initial jaw-dropping pop has been chalked up to the scarcity of seats, Brady making his 10th appearance and his first with the Buccaneers, and the Buccaneers fan base not having seen their team in the Super Bowl since 2002.
Economic impact for Tampa
Hosting the Super Bowl usually means big economic benefit for the host city, as fans come to town and eat in the local restaurants, shop at the stores, and stay in the hotels.
The pandemic will seriously reduce that boost for Tampa.
Last year Miami officials pegged the economic impact from hosting Super Bowl 54 at $570 million, and in 2018 Minneapolis officials put the boost their city got from Super Bowl 52 at $370 million.
These estimates are always highly ball-parked and can be “vastly overblown,” as economist Andrew Zimbalist told Yahoo Finance in 2019 about both NFL stadiums and Super Bowl hosting. But there is certainly a gain from the infusion of tourist money, and with only 22,000 fans attending the game, and amid continuing COVID-19 rules and social distancing in effect, Tampa could get less than half the boost it would have gotten if not for the pandemic. Still, even with significantly shrunken crowds, the fans traveling to the game will be looking for somewhere to stay, and the local Tampa Bay fans who venture out will be looking for somewhere to eat.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and specializes in sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.