Did Chelsea v Manchester City really attract a bigger audience than the Super Bowl?

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There are some British people who love the Super Bowl. And they *really* love the Super Bowl. In fact, they look a little something like this:

Then there are the British people who hate the Super Bowl. I mean, they *really* hate the Super Bowl. 

This is the story of those who fall in the latter camp. On Sunday it was claimed by Sky Sports presenter Simon Jones that 650 million people tuned in to watch Chelsea play out a 1-1 draw with Manchester City on Saturday evening. 

A day later and American sport's greatest showpiece, the Super Bowl, took centre stage as the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots went head-to-head in Arizona. Of course, the Look-At-Me razzmatazz of it all and the ostentatious claim that the Patriots are now 'World Champions' despite the fact that only one country can enter tends to rub us austere Brits up the wrong way. That's why some on this side of the pond are so quick to dismiss the NFL as an irrelevance. 

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Just that happened when one (inexplicably) popular Twitter account snidely remarked that the jewel in the American sport's crown couldn't even come close to what was essentially a run-of-the-mill Premier League fixture. "Take that football, you're nothing compared to football", it seemed to be snarling.

True or false?

But is it true? Erm, probably not. The 650 million number quoted here comes from a Premier League statement release to journalists which has been taken out of context, either through ignorance or something more sinister. 

"The match will be broadcast to 650 million homes in 175 countries," said the Premier League on Friday, while announcing that 26 TV crews including a team from Kazakhstan making their first foray into the market would be at the game. Now that's a nice big number to float around but it's also deliciously ambiguous.

Essentially what it means is that 650 million homes had access to the game, but it doesn't mean that 650 million people actually watched it. The figures haven't been released, so it's impossible to know how many viewers were sat in front of their televisions when the game kicked off.

The population of listed countries broadcasting the game (three were from 'South America', 'Middle East', and 'The Balkans so have been omitted) is around 1.1 billion. That means that just under 60% of every single person from those countries had to be sitting down to watch the game. Seem likely?

Around 7 million people in the UK have access to Sky Sports to watch the game, while a few million more watch it through other platforms like Virgin and NowTV. So, let's take 10 million as a ballpark figure. That would represent around 14% of the overall population having access to watch Chelsea against Manchester City.

If we take that 14% and extrapolate that across the countries that were broadcasting the game (in some ways that's generous because the UK market is the most mature and saturated, but equally some countries would have shown the game as free-to-air) then the percentage of people who had to have watched the game to validate the Premier League's claim grows and becomes even more unlikely.

Record-breaking Super Bowl

Equally the number quoted in the post for the Super Bowl last year is for those watching the game in America which means it isn't a fair comparison. That game between the Denver Broncos and the Seahawks was a blowout - which is relevant because the figure quoted is the average viewership across the broadcast rather than the peak - an industry standard used by Nielsen who released the data in America.

Early indications are that last night's game was the most watched Super Bowl in history, and given it was a close contest the number watching in America alone should be significantly higher, perhaps closer to the 120 million/average mark. Of course the NFL doesn't have the global appeal of football but last year Fox claimed that their broadcast of the Super Bowl would be shown in 198 countries, more than the number claimed by the Premier League for the Chelsea v Manchester City game.

NFL UK, for example, say that just shy of 4 million people watched the game last year. The sport is growing rapidly on these shores, so expect more to have watched this year. It is popular elsewhere in Europe too, especially in Germany, so expect big numbers there. It's growing in popularity in Australia, while China's eyes are up for grabs as well.

It was estimated that 160 million viewers worldwide watched the game between the Broncos and the Seahawks - which seems very conservative indeed - with the vast majority of that figure coming from the States. So even with the Premier League's fudged numbers, more still would have watched the Chelsea v Manchester City game, right?

Fudged figures

Well, no again. The bottom line for all these numbers is the fact that no one has yet perfected a way of precisely measuring audiences. It's nigh-on impossible to say how many individuals were watching a game because of things like groups watching the game in a bar on one television. Smartphones and tablets confuse the issue further - this article tackles the issue in depth. This from the, sorry to this to you, Daily Mail also explores the issue.

“I really believe that the number is underreported substantially. If you take 120 million or so [who watched the Super Bowl last year] and add the parties, there’s no doubt in my mind that one in every two Americans is watching the game,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group.

If that really is the case, then the real number of people watching in the US alone could be about 50 million off. So, whenever you see a TV audience number in the future, regardless of the sport, take the number with a pinch of salt.

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