The Most Viral Super Bowl Moments Ranked

The Super Bowl is more than a football game. It's the culmination of an NFL season, pitting the AFC champion against the NFC's best to determine the year's true winner and overall best. "The Big Game" is also a cultural event, a secular holiday where millions gather with friends and family to watch the game unfold on TV and eat and drink all day long. It's kind of like Thanksgiving — but with more football.

"Super Bowl" is additionally an umbrella term for the day-long broadcast of the football game and all of its accouterments and ancillary features: There's a high-profile halftime show, a bombastic delivery of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and several pre-and-post-game shows. Because so many people watch the Super Bowl — more than 100 million Americans most years — there are plenty of people who aren't huge football fans but are more entertained by the other stuff. It's a shared national experience, and it seems like every year there are certain Super Bowl-related moments that everybody talks about (and shares footage of) for months. Here are the most scandalous, interesting, discussed, and viral moments ever to go down near a Super Bowl.

When a sleepy Super Bowl fan took a little nap

Attending the Super Bowl is a "bucket list" item for a lot of people — it's a dream come true to attend an event limited to those connected or rich enough to get one of 60,000 or so tickets, which carry a face value of several thousand dollars. When one actually gets into the stands for the Super Bowl, surrounded by all the spectacle, it must be extremely exciting. That, or it's so overwhelming that the brain can't take it and shuts itself off.

Perhaps that's the unfortunate fate that befell the subject of a 13-second video captured by Sporting News deputy editor and producer Karisa Maxwell. While working the 2020 Super Bowl (via ABC News), Maxwell spotted a man in his seat, leaning against a concrete wall, completely asleep with his mouth agape (above). If that's not all, it was only the first quarter. Maxwell posted the video on Twitter, and by the time the Kansas City Chiefs came from behind to defeat the San Francisco 49ers, the clip had racked up millions of views.

In the days after the Super Bowl, a little investigative reporting uncovered the identity of the tuckered out individual. According to the New York Post, he was Declan Kelly, and he'd fallen asleep in a section of end zone seats that cost an average of $7,000. Kelly could afford it: He's the chairman and CEO of the consulting firm Teneo, and a former State Department envoy.

When Madonna and M.I.A. provocatively gestured

In 2012, producers of the Super Bowl halftime show — the mid-game, mini-concert watched by almost as many people as the actual football happenings — landed a performer suitably well-known and well-liked around the world: Madonna. About 114 million people saw the former Material Girl play a medley of seven songs, including "Vogue," "Music," and "Like a Prayer." Adding to the high-profile extravaganza were some very special high-profile guests, like CeeLo Green, LMFAO, and on the public premiere performance of Madonna's latest single "Give Me All Your Luvin'," rapper Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., best known for her hit "Paper Planes."

M.I.A. is no stranger to controversy. According to Pitchfork, her father co-founded the Sri Lankan separatist group the Tamil Tigers, which some have labeled a terrorist organization and which M.I.A. uses the imagery of for her visuals. During her verse on "Give Me All Your Lovin'" at the Super Bowl, M.I.A. delivered the line, "I'mma say this once, yeah, I don't give a ****," and thrust a middle finger into the air. The swear word was cut out of the broadcast; the obscene gesture was not, and that was quite controversial to a big part of the millions watching on TV (and who could re-watch the offending moment on YouTube). 

The NFL immediately issued a statement. "The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing and we apologize to our fans," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy (via ESPN).

When Eli Manning looked sad as Peyton Manning demonstrated late-game heroics

Eli Manning had a lot of reasons to justify his presence in a luxury box at the 2016 Super Bowl. At the time, he'd just completed his twelfth season as an NFL star quarterback, with two Super Bowl championships with the New York Giants to his name. And in this particular game, the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos was his older brother, Peyton Manning.

Late in the game, Peyton Manning turned out a stunning play. Barely leading the Carolina Panthers with about three minutes left, Manning got the ball to running back C.J. Anderson, who scored a touchdown. Then, instead of a kicked extra point, Manning went for the run-and-throw two-point conversion, passing to Bennie Fowler and nailing it, giving Denver an insurmountable 24 to 10 lead.

But that's not the moment from Super Bowl 50 that went viral, both as a video and a GIF. Cameras caught Eli Manning watching the game, and captured the moment Peyton Manning executed the touchdown. While everyone around him celebrates, Eli Manning's face droops into an expression that looks an awful lot like sadness. The world speculated about why he was so bummed out — jealous of his brother, perhaps? The younger Manning claimed that he was lost in thought, wondering about the possibility of a two-point conversion. "I was just focused on whether they'd go for two, and the defense had to step up and make some stops," he told TMZ.

When Justin Timberlake paid tribute to Prince, even though nobody wanted him to

Justin Timberlake's performance during the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show was bound to go viral, if only because of all the loud and voluminous controversy in the weeks leading up to it. That year, the game site was U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the hometown of all-time great Prince, whose sudden death in 2016 was still fresh and raw. 

News emerged that Timberlake's performance would include a hologram of Prince, to which the late artist was adamantly opposed. "That's the most demonic thing imaginable," Prince said of such theoretical technological breakthroughs to Guitar World in 1998. After widespread opposition from Prince fans (and a discussion with the musician's percussionist, Sheila E.), Timberlake pulled the hologram at the last moment.

Nevertheless, he still included Prince in what fans considered a flop of a performance. While Timberlake sang "I Would Die 4 U," an image of Prince was projected onto a giant purple curtain. Hardcore Prince acolytes with Twitter accounts didn't care for that. One representative tweet from writer Ben Silverman read, "The only way this could turn out ok is if Prince's mummified hand shoots down from space and chokes out JT on the 35 yard line." Even the usually genial comedian Sinbad got upset, tweeting, "Okay punka** justin Timberlake. You was cool till you pulled that Prince bulls***."

When Jennifer Lopez and Shakira put on a halftime show for the ages

The 2020 Super Bowl solidified Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes as a football legend in the making, but the real stars of Super Bowl LIV were halftime performers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. A nonstop explosion of music and energetic dancing, viewers were wowed by the celebratory atmosphere propelled by the 50-year-old Lopez and 43-year-old Shakira. ("Perhaps we should let women over the age of 40 do things more often," tweeted Vice editor Rachel Miller.) On the other hand, the performance went viral for all the wrong reasons, according to some. Per CNN, more than 1,300 viewers complained to the Federal Communications Commission that Lopez and Shakira's performance was too sexually provocative, what with the skimpy stage outfits, twerking, and pole dancing.

One of the most talked-about moments came when Shakira, immediately after crowd surfing, got up close with a TV camera and rapidly darted her tongue in and out of her mouth accompanied by a high-pitched noise. Baffled viewers compared it to everything from a goat to SpongeBob SquarePants, but the Washington Post explained that Shakira had delivered "a traditional Arabic expression of joy and celebration called a zaghrouta," which was also a shout out to the Carnaval de Barranquilla, a celebration in "Shakira's hometown in Colombia."

When Beyonce performed and reunited Destiny's Child

As the most beloved performer of her generation and an idol to millions, virtually anything Beyoncé does gets people voicing their approval on social media, whether it's the surprise release of a new album or a performance on the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show – TV's biggest individual stage. Queen B arrived on stage via an elevator during a recording of a speech about excellence from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi then launched into many of her best-known songs, including "Love on Top," "Crazy in Love," "End of Time," and "Baby Boy."

By 2013, it had been nearly a decade since Destiny's Child split up in the wake of breakout star Beyoncé's enormously successful solo career, so it was a lovely surprise when the singer's former bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams arrived on stage to help sing their hits "Bootylicious" and "Independent Women Part I," and then Beyonce's solo smash "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." While the trio performed, Twitter logged more than 257,000 tweets per minute, making this halftime show a certified viral moment.

When the lights went out at the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is a sensory overload of sports, spectacle, fireworks, planes flying overhead, music, advertising, and thousands of people working hard to make it all move along swimmingly. The 2013 iteration of the big game provided one of the most memorable moments in the history of sporting events. What happened? Nothing at all happened — for well over half an hour — and that's why it was so weird.

After a minute and a half of play in the second half, the Baltimore Ravens had pulled away from the San Francisco 49ers with a lead of 28 to 6. And then, New Orleans' 73,000-seat Superdome went dark. Almost all of the lights in the massive stadium blinked off, sending the current center of the sports and television universe into darkness.

 It took workers a very stressful 34 minutes to restore electricity (according to The Guardian, the cause was a backup power supply device failure), during which time people in the stadium and those watching at home had little to do besides talk about the blackout. Emerging among the thousands of outrage-related tweets was a viral ad from Oreo. The cookie maker's marketing team acted quickly, generating a Twitter ad that said, "Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark," alongside a barely lit Oreo. That static commercial got nearly 14,000 retweets.

When Prince made it rain while singing 'Purple Rain'

It's almost an objective fact that Prince's mid-game performance in 2007 is the greatest Super Bowl halftime show of all time, with numerous major publications stating as such. Like Prince's remarkable catalog of music, the concert was so universally appreciated and loved that it went viral — both online and in-person for days, it seemed like everyone in February 2007 could agree that Prince absolutely crushed it. Playing on a stage shaped like his personal symbol, Prince opened with a cover of Queen's "We Will Rock You," then played his 1984 hit "Let's Go Crazy," segued into a performance of "Baby I'm a Star" with the Florida A&M University marching band, and then gave CCR's "Proud Mary," Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," and Foo Fighters' "Best of You" a shot.

Prince was a charismatic and extremely talented individual, but he had fans wondering if he was a supernatural entity who could control the weather. He concluded his already epic halftime show performance with a rendition of his iconic "Purple Rain" – as the Miami skies dumped buckets onto Dolphin Stadium.

When Whitney Houston sang the National Anthem

It's a major career milestone, a sign they've made the big leagues, when a singer is asked to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the Super Bowl, in front of millions of viewers plus tens of thousands of live fans, and a few representatives of the United States Armed Forces. The pregame National Anthem can be a stirring, patriotic, unifying moment, and some of America's finest singers have accepted the opportunity, including Diana Ross, Neil Diamond, Luther Vandross, and Mariah Carey — but nobody sang it more memorably than Whitney Houston did in 1991.

Dressed in a red, white, and blue tracksuit and white headband, Houston absolutely belted it out in the immaculate, soulful, gospel-tinged style that had made her rich, famous, and beloved. The crowd went wild, waving flags and screaming their appreciation as loud as they could. Houston's delivery of "The Star-Spangled Banner" met the national tone of patriotic fervor. At the time of the 1991 Super Bowl, the US was at war, with the Persian Gulf conflict with Iraq beginning just days earlier.

Millions wanted to re-experience Houston's performance immediately and as often as possible, and it went viral in the way things did before the internet age: the sale of physical media. Houston's "The Star-Spangled Banner" was released as a single, and it reached #20 on the Billboard pop chart and eventually sold more than a million copies.

When Left Shark helped Katy Perry live out her teenage dream

Katy Perry is an entertainer, and she brought more than a little something for everyone in her 2015 Super Bowl halftime show. She entered the field while riding a gigantic animatronic tiger. Then, Lenny Kravitz showed up to duet on "I Kissed a Girl." Both of those moments were almost entirely overlooked once "Teenage Dream" started up. On a beach set, performers danced while dressed as life-size beach balls, surfboards, and palm trees. As Perry sang, she was flanked by performers in identical cartoon shark costumes, but it's the dancer known as "Left Shark" who overshadowed everyone and everything else on that stage. While the other shark danced out the choreography accurately, Left Shark was just a little off, slightly out of time, and missing some moves entirely, but in a completely charming way, making him or herself a viral star instantly.

Three years later, the man inside Left Shark told all. Bryan Gaw had been a backup dancer for Perry for five years, and he'd wanted to have some fun. "So there's a set choreography. There's also what's called free-style choreography, or, like, you get to move around or play your character as a dancer," Gaw told NPR's Morning Edition. "I'm in a 7-foot blue shark costume. There's no cool in that. So what's the other option? Well, I'm gonna play a different character." And that character was a silly shark.

The infamous Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson fiasco

MTV produced the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, and brought in many of the day's biggest musicians, including Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. The finale: a performance of Timberlake's "Rock Your Body." After he sang the lyric, "Better have you naked by the end of this song," he delivered on that statement, pulling off a section of Jackson's black bodice, revealing to the large TV audience, for about one second, the pop legend's entire right breast, her nipple strategically covered with a sun-shaped pastie.

While Jackson looked surprised, the exposure was planned. "The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV was completely unaware of it," Jackson said in a statement (via AP). "I apologize to anyone offended." Timberlake didn't seem too apologetic, laughingly telling Access Hollywood (via ESPN) that he liked "giving you all something to talk about," and labeling the incident a "wardrobe malfunction," thus coining a phrase still used today.

Representatives of TiVo, the live TV recording device in wide use at the time, reported that "Nipplegate" was its most-rewatched moment ever, while the incident would also lead to a monumental shift in the way people consume media. Months after the Super Bowl, per USA Today, computer programmer Jawed Karim wanted to see the wardrobe malfunction, but couldn't find it anywhere online. That inspired him to co-create a video hosting service called YouTube — where viral moments live forever.