Presence of unbeaten Pats all but guarantees huge viewership

From some perspectives, Super Bowl XLII doesn't seem like must-see TV.

There's a yawning two-touchdown point spread between the favored New England Patriots and the New York Giants, suggesting a yawner of a game.

There's a dreadful lack of geographic diversity. The NFL championship game is being played in Glendale, Ariz., but the playoffs eliminated every team west of New Jersey. That begs the question: Will an all-Northeast matchup play in Peoria, Ill.? Or in California?

Yet, this could be the first Super Bowl to top 100 million TV viewers, in terms of total average audience. The current high-water mark was set back in 1996, when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17 before an audience of 94.1 million.

While the Super Bowl has remained a mortal lock to be the highest-rated TV program of the year, it hasn't been able to match its record in more than a decade. Last year's Indianapolis Colts-Chicago Bears game came closest, attracting an audience of 93.2 million.

This year, though, Fox Sports could be poised to take the game to a new level in terms of total eyeballs.

How? Call it the "Patriots Premium." All season, the ratings for Pats' games have been like Nielsens on steroids. The four most-viewed regular-season NFL games in 2007 involved New England: Oct. 14 versus Dallas, Nov. 4 versus Indianapolis, Dec. 9 versus Pittsburgh and Dec. 29 versus the Giants.

That regular-season finale against New York, in which the Patriots completed the first undefeated regular season since 1972, was simulcast on three networks on a Saturday night and drew the biggest audience for a regular-season NFL game (34.5 million viewers) since the Kansas City Chiefs played the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in 1995. The Nov. 4 Colts game attracted the most viewership for a regular-season Sunday afternoon game (33.8 million) since records were first kept in 1987.

The Patriots Premium will almost surely carry over to the Super Bowl. The team's perfect season and its distinctive cast -- from glamour quarterback Tom Brady to dour coach Bill Belichick -- is reality TV writ large. This team is on the radar screens of people who hardly ever put football games on their TV screens.

"The Patriots are not just chasing the Giants, they're chasing history," wrote Robert Seidman on the Web site TVbytheNumbers.com, which tracks and analyzes Nielsen ratings. "With Golden Boy Tom Brady and the villainous Bill Belichick in pursuit of 19-0, it's easy to predict record-high viewership for this year's Super Bowl."

Top 5 Super Bowl Audiences

Can Super Bowl XLII top the average number of viewers who, according to Nielsen Media Research, tuned in to these games? The prospects look good.

Seidman predicts Super Bowl XLII will not only top the mark set in 1996, but exceed 100 million. Spokesmen for the NFL and Nielsen declined to speculate on the record being broken.

"This has a definite shot [at the record]," said John Mansell, a TV sports analyst and consultant. "Between the size of the teams' markets and all the storylines, I think it's going to do very big numbers."

"It should certainly be in the running [for the record]," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "There's something in this game for everybody to root against. There are a lot of people around the country pulling for Tom Brady, but also a lot who hope he leaves the field with walking casts on both feet. And everybody here on the Left Coast is happy to root against anything New York."

The total Super Bowl audience could have edged even higher if the Green Bay Packers had defeated the Giants in the NFC championship game and made it to Arizona, Seidman believes, because of the Packers' national following and the Brett Favre factor.

"People know him and like him," Seidman said in an interview. "I don't think that's true of [Giants quarterback] Eli Manning."

On the other hand, Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said, "If you've got every TV household in the No. 1 market [New York] watching that game, that's pretty significant."

The NFC championship game did add an alluring story line, as the Giants had to upset tough opponents on the road in Dallas and Green Bay to fight their way to Glendale. In addition, that frosty game, played in sub-zero temperatures, brought huge Nielsen ratings -- 10 percent higher than those of last year's NFC title contest between Chicago and the New Orleans Saints -- further pointing to the potential for a mega-audience for Super Bowl XLII.

But in the end, the quality of this Super Bowl will be crucial to the size of the audience, said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now a broadcast consultant. The Patriots' mystique can attract casual viewers, but a good contest is required to retain them. Along with some great commercials, of course.

"If it's a blowout, it doesn't matter who's playing," he said.

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."