Super Bowl 2018: The real contest -- will viewers tune in?

The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles aren't the only ones facing a test of skill and strategy this Sunday. After a year of bruising National Football League TV ratings, analysts and advertisers are asking if the Super Bowl itself will emerge a winner -- or suffer from a defeat if viewers tune out. 

Regular-season TV ratings declined 13 percent, while playoff ratings slumped between 12 percent to 20 percent, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson Research. The slump has been blamed on everything from the national anthem controversy to President Donald Trump, who has credited himself with pushing down the ratings.

Whatever the reason, the Super Bowl is a high-stakes game for advertisers, who are shelling out $5 million for 30 seconds of air time this year. Add in production costs and pre-game promotion, and an advertiser can easily spend double that on their game-day message. 

Advertisers shell out millions on a single ad because the Super Bowl is the only TV event for which more than 100 million viewers typically tune in. Even better, it's one of the few broadcasts whose ads viewers say they look forward to watching. 

"This is a critical test for the NFL," said Kellogg School of Management professor Derek Rucker. "If they show a slip in ratings, the consequences will be massive. That price tag -- $5 million for 30 seconds -- is contingent on how many people are watching."

The Super Bowl will air Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (CBS, the parent company of CBS MoneyWatch, is scheduled to carry Super Bowl LIII in 2019.)

While more than 100 million viewers have tuned into the Super Bowl every year since 2010, ratings have slipped for each of the last two years. The high point was in 2015, when 114.4 million viewers tuned in to watch the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks. The game attracted 111.9 million viewers in 2016 and slightly less than that in 2017. 

Despite the NFL's ratings headaches this season, Rucker said he believes the Super Bowl will avoid getting sacked on Sunday, partly because Americans tune in for reasons other than actually watching the game. 

"The Super Bowl is an event or occasion in America," he noted. "It's an opportunity to order that bad food" and get together with friends.

So far, advertisers appear to be playing it safe, based on the content of their pre-released Super Bowl commercials. Every year, some advertisers post their commercials before the game, hoping to gin up buzz that will play out for longer than Super Bowl Sunday. 

But they've been slower this year to pre-release their ads, Rucker noted. He said that's because of a perfect storm of cultural events, ranging from the #MeToo movement highlighting sexual harassment and sexism to the controversy over some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and concerns about players suffering concussions.

"It might make them shy about taking risks," he said. "Sexual innuendo has been common in past ads, but advertisers may want to move away from that. Context is important, and smart advertisers will respond to that."

His prediction: Viewers will see fewer ads celebrating sex and violence, and more focusing on humor and touching emotion. 

One of the ads earning early buzz relies on humor and whimsy to sell its message. The ad touts the benefits of Mountain Dew versus Doritos by featuring a lip sync battle between actors Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage.

"I think most of the ads will be more lighthearted and funny. A lot of the advertisers are going to steer clear of talking about politics or social issues," Advertising Age media reporter Jeanine Poggi told "CBS This Morning."

Advertisers will closely watch not only which commercials score well with viewers, but the demographics of Super Bowl viewers. Some analysts have speculated that demographic changes are to blame for the NFL's ratings slump, given the tendency for younger viewers to become cord cutters and snub cable or network broadcasts. 

Nathanson's prediction: "If this past NFL regular season and playoffs serve as a guide, odds are that more Americans will tune the game out than last year."