College Football Playoff Committee Drops the Ball on New Year's Eve

Despite Scheduling Snafu, ESPN Forges Ahead

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College Football Playoff sponsors light up Phoenix.
College Football Playoff sponsors light up Phoenix. Credit: ESPN

Year two of the College Football Playoff series took a beating, as the governing committee's refusal to shift the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl away from New Year's Eve helped lead to significant ratings declines.

According to the final Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, household ratings for the Dec. 31 playoff games plummeted 37% compared to last year's set of games, while overall deliveries dropped 40%, marking a net loss of 11.2 million overall viewers. And while some of these results may be chalked up to the fact that both games were blowouts, College Football Playoff rights holder ESPN's greatest challenge lay in the scheduling.

Oklahoma and Clemson kicked off at 4 p.m. EST, while millions of fans on the East Coast were making an early break away from the office, and millions of West Coast fans were still in the thick of the final business day of the year. The Orange Bowl beatdown (Clemson beat the Sooners by a 37-17 margin) averaged 15.6 million viewers, marking a decline of 45% versus last year's analogous Oregon-Florida State Rose Bowl game, which drew 28.2 million on New Year's Day. Moreover, the Orange Bowl eked out just a 9.1 household rating, which was off 39% when compared to the 14.8 rating notched by the year-ago Ducks-Seminoles blooper reel.

As fans in the east began to make their way off the couch and toward their various New Year's destinations, ESPN's presentation of the Cotton Bowl began. No. 1 seed Alabama blanked Michigan State 38-0 in another drama-free game that drew 18.6 million viewers and a 9.6 household rating, down 34% and 37%, respectively, compared to 28.3 million viewers and a 15.2 rating for Ohio State's instant classic 42-35 upset of 'Bama in the Sugar Bowl.

While the New Year's Eve playoff numbers were still relatively robust when compared to the rest of the TV landscape -- for example, the aggregate 9.4 household rating topped every "Monday Night Football" delivery but one, tying the Dec. 28 Bengals-Broncos nail-biter -- the huge year-over-year declines are particularly galling inasmuch as they were eminently avoidable. While the terms of ESPN's 12-year, $7.3 billion deal with the College Football Playoff explicitly outlined a regular New Year's Eve schedule, the network last February approached officials with a proposition to shift the 2015 playoff games to a far more fan-friendly date: Saturday, Jan. 2. College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock and the rest of the committee refused to budge, and ESPN proceeded to promote the New Year's Eve playoffs to the best of its abilities, knowing full well that it would lose ground.

Unfortunately, and this holds for ESPN and college football fans alike, the College Football Playoff appears disinterested in making any proactive changes to the schedule, which means that seven of the next 10 playoff series will air on New Year's Eve. Much of this intractability is a byproduct of tradition; Rose Bowl officials are unlikely to ever agree to shift the Grandaddy of Them All out of its time-honored Jan. 1 slot, which effectively puts the kibosh on scheduling a regular New Year's Day playoff series. Barring an unforeseen reversal of fortune or a sudden outbreak of common sense, ESPN and fans are stuck with the contractually mandated New Year's Eve slate. (The Rose and Sugar Bowls hosted last year's playoff games, but that only happens once every three years.)

"The College Football Playoff is a long-term, multiplatform play for us," said Burke Magnus, ESPN executive VP of programming and scheduling. "With that said, there are many variables that impact ratings results including what happens on the field and the numbers this year were obviously impacted by the unbalanced scores of these games."

Mr. Magnus went on to note that four of the New Year's Six bowls posted double-digit ratings increases, adding that streaming on WatchESPN was at "near-historic levels."

For all the wrack and ruin of the College Football Playoff schedule, the weekend wasn't a total loss for ESPN. For one thing, it is eagerly awaiting the Jan. 11 National Championship Game, which features the two best teams in college football in the undefeated Clemson Tigers and the perennial ratings draw that is the 13-1 Crimson Tide. Alabama is a six-and-a-half point favorite, but even if Nick Saban's charges run away with the title, the ratings are still likely to impress. Ohio State romped to a 42-20 win over Oregon in the inaugural title tilt, and ESPN managed to break all extant cable records with a draw of 33.4 million viewers and an 18.2 household rating.

"College football is strong, vibrant and growing, and we look forward to the National Championship Game," Mr. Magnus said.

Moreover, ESPN's New Year's Eve woes were offset somewhat by the performance of the rest of the New Year's Six games. All told, the playoff games and the Peach, Fiesta, Rose and Sugar Bowl telecasts averaged 12 million viewers and a 6.7 household rating, down 10% and 16%, respectively, versus the year-ago 14.5 million viewers/8.0 rating. These are hardly optimal results, but given that ESPN makes the bulk (about 70%) of its ratings guarantees against the aggregate deliveries for the New Year's Six and National Championship Game, the make-good situation isn't anywhere near as dire as the 37% playoff drop might otherwise suggest.

An ESPN exec declined to offer any specifics re make-goods, saying only that the network builds protection into its guarantees. Naturally, inventory set aside for late scatter buys can be used as a hedge against ADUs, industry argot for audience deficiency units.

While official College Football Playoff sponsors like AT&T, Allstate, Dr Pepper and Ford were predictably visible during the playoffs (not to mention Capital One and Goodyear, which also served as title sponsors), other advertisers in Thursday's games included movie studios such as Columbia Pictures ("Concussion"), Twentieth Century Fox ("The Revenant") and Lionsgate ("Dirty Grandpa"), as well as representatives from disparate categories like gaming (Activision), the armed forces (U.S. Navy, U.S. Army), tech and consumer electronics (Apple) and quick-service restaurants (Wendy's).

As was the case with the playoffs, the other New Year's Six games were blighted by a general competitive imbalance. Altogether, the average margin of victory in the half-dozen bowl games was a hair over three touchdowns and a field goal (24.2 points). One of the biggest blowouts saw Stanford take a 35-0 lead over Iowa at the half before going on to secure a 45-16 victory, in what would be the year's most-watched, highest-rated (13.6 million viewers, 7.4 household) non-playoff game. That said, the Pac-12's humiliation of the Big Ten also marked a low point for the Rose Bowl, which notched its worst TV ratings on record. (The previous low-water mark was ABC's broadcast of the 1989 Michigan-USC ground war, which drew a 10.8 rating.)

The College Football Playoff results come on the heels of another solid season of "Monday Night Football," which averaged 12.9 million viewers and an 8.1 household rating, down just a tenth versus last season's final average.

Along with the upcoming Clemson-Alabama game, ESPN also is gearing up for its second-ever NFL playoff telecast. The network kicks off the postseason on Saturday with the AFC Wild Card matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. The game will be simulcast on ABC.

Last year's Cards-Panthers playoff averaged 21.7 million viewers and a 12.5 household rating, making it ESPN's third highest-rated NFL telecast.