How super will the Super Bowl be in the ratings this year? Sure, the Carolina Panthers are relatively unknown to non-sports fans. But that shouldn’t weaken viewership when the team meets the New England Patriots in the NFL championship game Sunday.

Indeed, the Super Bowl has become such a national social event that the teams themselves matter little to the Nielsen outcome.

“The most important criterion for the ratings is not the matchup, it’s really the quality of the game,” said Neal Pilson, head of Pilson Communications, a sports consulting firm. “If we get a close game into the fourth quarter, I think we’re going to get pretty good ratings.”

In any year, the Super Bowl is the most-watched television program. Last year’s Tampa-Oakland game was watched by more than 88 million people, which is more than the Academy Awards – typically the most-watched entertainment program every year.

“Today, what drives the ratings is that it’s a true national holiday,” said CBS Sports president Sean McManus, whose network will broadcast the Super Bowl this year.

For most sporting events, viewership is usually driven by the size of the home markets of the teams involved. An ideal matchup is having a team from New York play a team from California.

Neither the Patriots nor the Panthers are from huge markets, they’re both on the East Coast, and neither team has a big-name star who transcends the sports pages – all factors that help draw viewers.

But the Super Bowl is still the Super Bowl, a major social event that has people gathering at viewing parties and betting in office pools.

“There’s a lot of viewer interest here,” said Tom DeCabia, president of TSD Marketing. “Carolina is an underdog team and a lot of fans will root for that. Even though it’s two East Coast teams, I think there’s going to be some good national ratings.”

“To a large extent,” said CBS’ McManus, “the rating is quite bulletproof, with one caveat: that it does not get away in the third quarter.”

(c) 2004, New York Daily News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-23-04 1058EST

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