ESPN Sees Ratings Bounce for College Football Playoff Semifinals

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Damien Harris (34) of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Damien Harris (34) of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Credit: Allen Kee / ESPN Images

Boosted by earlier kickoff times and a fortuitous pivot away from a nominal business day, ratings for ESPN's coverage of the College Football Playoff semifinals games on New Year's Eve bounced back from last year's fiasco.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the combined deliveries for the Peach Bowl (Alabama-Washington) and Fiesta Bowl (Clemson-Ohio State) marked a sharp uptick compared with the year-ago playoff games, which were played on Thursday, Dec. 31. And while Saturday's numbers were nowhere near the lofty heights attained by the inaugural CFP semis, ESPN can breathe easier knowing that the playoffs won't again fall on Amateur Night for another five years.

'Bama's 24-7 victory over the Huskies in the early afternoon game averaged 19.3 million viewers and a 10.7 household rating, which worked out to a 24% improvement compared with the 15.6 million fans who tuned in for the 2015 Orange Bowl, and an 18% lift versus that game's 9.1 household rating. ESPN also enjoyed a 20% increase in its core advertiser demo, as the first semifinal telecast averaged a 6.6 rating among adults 25-54, up from the year-ago 5.5.

ESPN delivered similar results with the Fiesta Bowl blowout, drawing 19.2 million viewers and a 9.8 household rating, a slight (+3%) advancement when juxtaposed with last year's Cotton Bowl, which averaged 18.6 million viewers and a 9.6 rating. Clemson's 31-0 whitewashing of a favored Buckeyes squad drew a 6.8 in the target demo, up 5% from the year-ago 6.5.

All told, the two semis averaged 19.3 million viewers, a 10.3 household rating and a 6.7 in the guaranteed demo, which translates to 8.05 million viewers. Aggregate viewers were up 13% compared with last year's Orange and Cotton Bowl average (17.1 million), while household ratings jumped 10% and the demo improved 12%.

Although last year's games set a low bar, falling 40% versus the first stack of semifinal deliveries, the drop was all but preordained by myopic College Football Playoff executives, who failed to acknowledge the attendant challenges of finding an audience on a day in which many Americans don't so much as glance at their TV sets. According to Nielsen, 30 million fewer people were watching TV when the Orange Bowl semi kicked off on New Year's Eve 2015 compared with the crowd that was huddled around their sets for the start of the inaugural semifinal between Oregon and Florida State on Jan. 1, 2015.

As veteran ESPN college football announcer Brent Musburger said a week ago during a pre-Sugar Bowl conference call, the CFP's attempt to upend the holiday never made an awful lot of sense. "You're not going to remake New Year's Eve. It's not happening," Mr. Musburger said. "That's a longer tradition than a College Football Playoff. We've all got parties to go to."

Lower PUT levels (industry argot for People Using Television) remained an issue this year, but the decision to move the kickoffs back an hour helped ESPN make the best of a bad situation. If nothing else, the late Clemson-OSU game was never in any danger of conflicting with the countdown in Times Square or the associated foofaraw that ensues after the ball drops. That New Year's Eve also fell on a Saturday rather than a workaday Thursday presumably also played a part in the ratings bounce.

The next three rounds of semis are scheduled to play on Jan. 1, 2018; Dec. 29, 2018 and Dec. 28, 2019. The two latter dates are Saturdays.

The semis set up a rematch of last year's title tilt, an offensive doozy in which the second-ranked Alabama prevailed over No. 1 Clemson 45-40. ESPN's linear TV coverage averaged 25.7 million viewers, a 14.7 household rating and a 8.3 among adults 25-54. It was the 31st most-watched broadcast of 2016.

Now that the overlords of the CFP have reversed course on their doomed bid to upend generations of tradition, the ratings for subsequent playoff games should begin to approximate those generated by the inaugural match-ups. The Jan. 1, 2015 Rose Bowl (Oregon-Florida State) scared up 28.2 million viewers and a 14.8 household rating, and the second semi, the Alabama-OSU showdown in the Sugar Bowl, drew 28.3 million viewers and a 15.2 rating.

Without a national "brand" Ohio State in the mix, ESPN is unlikely to come anywhere near the 33.4 million viewers and 18.2 household rating it served up with the very first CFP championship game, which saw the Buckeyes sink the Oregon Ducks 42-20. Clemson doesn't have the coast-to-coast appeal of a Big Ten team, and Alabama has been so dominant that the prospect of Tide fatigue is very real.

ESPN signal callers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on Thursday acknowledged the elephant in the room. "I think anytime any team rules the top of a sport, or any individual for that matter, a certain percentage are going to get fatigued," Mr. Fowler said during a conference call with members of the media. "On the one hand you're describing an incredible reign, sustained achievement. On the other hand, there are many people, even within the SEC, that would like to see a fresh story, new people at the top."

Mr. Herbstreit was less receptive to talk of 'Bama overexposure, before noting that viewers who are weary of Nick Saban's charges shouldn't discount the entertainment factor that comes pre-packaged with the explosive Clemson offense, which "can score on anybody they play."

"Whether the viewers at home get tired of Alabama, I guess it's up to each individual," Mr. Herbstreit said. "I think Clemson has reached that status of an elite program … but if Alabama can stop the run and take away the deep ball … Clemson will punt, like Washington did, on almost every series."

The CFP championship game kicks off on ESPN Monday, Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. EST.

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