The NFL remains the king of television. In 2024, 93 of the top 100 broadcasts were NFL games. The upcoming Super Bowl 2024 is expected to be the most-watched broadcast of 2024. No other television show can compete with the NFL’s ratings, which explains why broadcast networks continue to pay astronomical fees to broadcast games.
Views are only one way to measure the viewership of the Super Bowl. Nielsen ratings determine the percentage of homes watching the Super Bowl out of the total amount of homes in the Nielsen universe. Some of the highest-rated Super Bowls happened many decades ago when the Nielsen universe was smaller. The highest-rated Super Bowl occurred in the early 1980s. Below are the highest-rated Super Bowls ranked from No. 10 to No. 1.
10. Super Bowl XVIII (1984), Super Bowl XIX (1985), Super Bowl XLVII (2013) – 46.4
Three Super Bowls – XVIII, XIX, and XLVI – all registered a 46.4 rating. The first two were blowouts. The Los Angeles Raiders dominated the Washington Redskins by a score of 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII. Raiders running back Marcus Allen ran for a 74-yard touchdown, a rushing record that stood for over 20 years until Pittsburgh Steelers Willie Parker scampered for a 75-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XL. The following season, the San Francisco 49ers, behind a then-record 537 total yards, cruised to a 38-16 win over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
Super Bowl XLVII is better known by two nicknames: The Har-bowl and the Blackout Bowl. It was the first game in Super Bowl history to feature two brothers – John and Jim Harbaugh – coaching against each other as head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. There was also a power outage in the third quarter, leading to a 34-minute delay. The Ravens won the game 34-31.
9. Super Bowl 50 (2016) – 46.6
There’s a phrase, “offense wins games, but defense wins championships.” This expression perfectly describes Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. Denver jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, winning 24-10 to capture the franchise’s third Super Bowl title.
Denver’s defense stifled Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers offense the entire night. The Broncos recorded seven sacks and forced four turnovers. Denver’s Von Miller became the fourth linebacker to win Super Bowl MVP. Miller had six tackles and two-and-a-half sacks in the win. The defensive battle did not deter viewership, with Super Bowl 50 recording a 46.6 rating.
8. Super Bowl XLVIII (2014) – 46.7
The Super Bowl is typically played inside a dome or outdoors in a warm climate. that was not the case with Super Bowl XLVIII, as the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos faced off at chilly MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. While attendees may have been cold in the stadium, fans at home stayed warm and watched the game, leading to a 46.7 rating.
Not every Super Bowl can be an instant classic. The Seahawks defense scored a safety on the first play of the game, which became a sign of things to come. Seattle’s defense shut down Denver’s high-flying offense on its way to a dominant 43-8 victory and the lone Super Bowl in Seahawks’ history.
7. Super Bowl XLVI (2012) – 47.0
In 2008, the New England Patriots were chasing perfection as they attempted to become the first 19-0 champion. However, the Giants had other plans as New York upset the Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII by a score of 17-14. As fate would have it, the Giants and Patriots would meet again in Super Bowl XLVI, which drew a 47.0 rating.
Even without an undefeated season, the Patriots jumped at the chance to avenge their Super Bowl loss four years prior. However, the pesky Giants rose to the occasion, defeating the Patriots 21-17. Eli Manning was named Super Bowl MVP for the second time after completing 30 of 40 passes for one touchdown and zero interceptions.
6. Super Bowl XIII (1979) – 47.1
In 1979, the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers had already established themselves as two of the premier franchises in the NFL. The Cowboys had already won two Super Bowls, including Super Bowl XII. The Steelers were in the middle of the famous “Steel Curtain” dynasty as they sought to win their third Super Bowl in five seasons.
The stars aligned in Super Bowl XIII as the Cowboys and Steelers met in the Miami Orange Bowl. The game was terrific thanks to the play of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, who combined to throw for 546 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. Pittsburgh narrowly edged out Dallas 35-31 to win Super Bowl XIII. The exciting game led to a high rating of 47.1.
5. Super Bowl XII (1978) – 47.2
The Super Bowl was played indoors for the first time at the Louisiana Superdome in 1978. Super Bowl XII featured the Dallas Cowboys representing the NFC and the Denver Broncos out of the AFC. Broncos quarterback Craig Morton won Super Bowl VI as the starter on the Dallas Cowboys. Now, Morton had a chance to beat his former team, which was led by quarterback Roger Staubach.
Unfortunately for Morton, the Broncos never stood a chance against Dallas’ elite defense. Morton completed 4 of 15 passes for 39 yards before being replaced by Norris Weese in the third quarter. The Cowboys took a 13-0 lead into halftime before blowing it open in the second half to win 27-10. The Cowboys are known as “America’s Team,” so a 47.2 rating for Super Bowl XII should not come as a surprise.
4. Super Bowl XLIX (2015) – 47.5
In the early 2000s, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots became a dynasty after winning three of four Super Bowls, with the last one coming in 2005. However, the New England dynasty was in a 10-year championship drought when it entered Super Bowl XLIX 2015. Standing across New England on the other sidelines were the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
The game lived up to the hype, as New England entered the final two minutes with a 28-24 lead. The Seattle offense reached the 1-yard line before things went haywire. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass to seal the victory in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. Many households tuned in to see the Patriots win the Super Bowl, as the game registered a 47.5 rating.
3. Super Bowl XX (1986) – 48.3
One of the most dominant teams in NFL history is the 1985 Chicago Bears. Led by head coach Mike Ditka, the Bears entered Super Bowl XX with a 14-1 record, with their only blemish coming at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. The Bears’ defense remains one of the most dominant units in NFL history and featured several future Hall of Fame players, including left end Dan Hampton, right end Richard Dent, and middle linebacker Mike Singletary.
The team tasked with playing the Bears was the New England Patriots. Unfortunately for their Patriots, they stood in the way of a buzz saw as Chicago showed no mercy in their 46-10 win. It remains the Bears’ lone Super Bowl win. Chicago’s popularity aided in a massive 48.3 rating.
2. Super Bowl XVII (1983) – 48.6
The 1982-1983 season began with a players’ strike, forcing the league to reduce the schedule from 16 games to nine. Additionally, the postseason implemented a unique 16-team, four-round playoff tournament to determine the champion. The final two teams in the tournament were the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins, who met in Super Bowl XVII.
After heading into halftime down 17-10, the Redskins stormed back, scoring 17 unanswered points to win 27-17. The Redskins rushing attack was the difference, as running back John Riggins rushed for a then-record 166 yards. Super Bowl XVII, which drew a 48.6 rating, was the Redskins first of three championships over the next 10 seasons.
1. Super Bowl XVI (1982) – 49.1
The highest-rated Super Bowl dates back to 1982 when the San Francisco 49ers took on the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. It remains the only Super Bowl to cross the 49.0 ratings threshold. Super Bowl XVI is the fourth-highest-rated TV broadcast of all time, behind Roots’ Part VIII (51.1), Dallas’ Who Done It (53.3), and the M*A*S*H series finale (60.2).
Super Bowl XVI also benefited from a great matchup between two 13-3 teams. San Francisco jumped on Cincinnati early with a 20-0 halftime lead. The Bengals outscored the 49ers 21-6 in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to defeat San Francisco. Legendary 49ers quarterback Joe Montana was named Super Bowl MVP, the first of three in his career.