Who Dat Didn't Watch Super Bowl XLIV?

After almost 27 years, Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints (with a little help from Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts) have wiped Hawkeye Pierce, Col. Sherman T. Potter and the rest of the 4077 from the Nielsen record book.

CBS’s coverage of the Saints winning their first NFL championship over Indy in Super Bowl XLIV Sunday tackled 106.5 million viewers on average, the most in U.S. TV history. NO-Indy obliterated the previous Super Bowl mark set by NBC with its presentation of last year’s championship match in which Pittsburgh’s last-second win over Arizona Cardinals garnered a 98.7 million average.

The Feb. 7 title tilt from Sun Life Stadium in South Florida also edged its way past the series finale of M*A*S*H on Feb. 28, 1983, which pulled in an average audience of just under 106 million, according to Nielsen data. Of course, the U.S. population and the Nielsen universe  — 83 million households, versus 114.9 million today — were far less when Alan Alda starred as Hawkeye and Mike Farrell (not MCN’s finance editor) as B.J. Hunnicutt. So, too were the media and TV choices.

But on a Sunday, when a good swath of the East Coast was still shoveling out from a major blizzard, the question remained whether a pair of high-scoring, but small market NFL teams — Indy’s No. 25 in the Nielsen universe, NOLA ranks 51st — could produce enough intrigue to crack the 100 million average audience mark. Clearly, the top story lines about Manning attempting to solidify his all-time QB pedigree or the Who Dat Nation finally celebrating after 43 largely frustrating years pulled in a record number of people into CBS’s tent and then some!

Indeed, Super Bowl XLIV crowned an extraordinary year for the NFL and its network carriers. Check out this checklist:

*The best regular season since 1990 with 16.6 million viewers per game. Check!

*The most-watched Wild Card weekend, with 29.9 million watchers, since 1994. Check!

*The top Divisional round since 1994, with an average of 33 million viewers. Check!

*The leading AFC title game since 1986, as 46.9 million watched Indy knock out Rex Ryan’s New York Jets. Check!

*The highest NFC title game, with 57.9 million, since “The Catch” on Jan 10. 1982 and the largest non-Super Bowl audience since Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer said goodbye on the Seinfeld finale on May 14, 1998. Check!

* Even ESPN’s coverage of the Pro Bowl, in a new slot in the week before Super Bowl XLIV, had its best performance in a decade. Check!

*The ability to immediately negotiate new rights deals from an even stronger hand than usual. Oops!

Last May, the NFL reached extensions through 2013 with Fox and CBS, at minor bumps — in the 1% to 2% range — over the $712 million and $622 million they had been paying, respectively. NBC also renewed its Sunday Night Football deal through the 2013 campaign last August.

The NFL did pick up a nice gain last March — about 43% to some $1 billion annually from $700 million per season by extending DirecTV’s “exclusivity” with the out-of-market Sunday Ticket package through the 2014 season. DirecTV can market an online version of The Ticket, but the popular package was blitzed to some extent by the kickoff of NFL Network’s RedZone scoring channel this past season. It will clip Sunday Ticket further with a mobile phone version of RedZone, starting with the 2010 campaign.

Of course, the best deal — and perhaps the reason football fans truly should fret the possibility of the 2011 NFL season getting sacked — is that the networks must pay their billions in rights fees to the league and its owners, whether or not Brees, Manning or the rest fire a single pass.

But in the meantime, let’s raise a glass to a great season and the Saints. Everybody now:

“Oh, when the saints go marching in

Oh, when the saints go marching in

Lord, how I want to be in that number

When the saints go marching in”

A lot of us were in that number Sunday!