Look Out, Baseball. College Football Is Hot on Your Cleats

It's No Contest: Pro Football Is America's Top Sport for Viewers and Advertisers. But College Football Is Fast Closing in on the No. 2 Slot Long Owned By Baseball

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College football
Player photos via AP / Stadium photo via Bloomberg / Photo Illustration by Thomas Pardee

The dream matchup of Notre Dame vs. Alabama is expected to attract record TV audiences and ad dollars for ESPN's telecast of the Discover BCS National Championship Game tonight.

If that happens, it would reinforce the opinion of sports experts who say college football is poised to overtake baseball as the country's most-popular sport after pro football -- that is , if it hasn't already.

Monday night's matchup couldn't have worked out better for ESPN and advertisers such as Discover, Nissan and Taco Bell. The Fighting Irish have a rabid national fanbase eager to watch them play for their first national title since 1988. The defending national champion Crimson Tide are gunning for their third title in four years.

Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, co-author of "Death to the BCS," has been an outspoken critic of the Bowl Championship Series format for years. But Mr. Wetzel predicts record TV numbers for ND vs. "Bama. Combined viewership for ESPN's Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl BCS telecasts on New Year's Day, for example, rose 11%, according to Nielsen's fast national ratings .

In 2014, college football will finally dump the BCS system in favor of a four-team playoff televised by ESPN. That move will accelerate the national popularity of a fractured, regional sport that 's shot itself in the foot through conference rivalries and lack of a commissioner, Mr. Wetzel said. "The sport's already booming -- but it will only boom even more. If it's not No. 2, it will be."

ESPN's all smiles about Monday's championship tilt. After selling 85% of its inventory during the season, the Disney-owned sports network has been getting as much as $1 million for the last few 30-second spots. That's almost a third of what CBS is getting for a 30-second spot in the most-expensive sports showcase, the Super Bowl. It's also about double what Fox pulled in for a 30-second spot in the World Series, though that was over four games.

Sharon Byers, VP-sports and entertainment for Coca-Cola, predicts the new college football playoff in 2014 will turn into a multimedia advertising showcase for Madison Avenue. "It will be better than the Super Bowl," Ms. Byers told Advertising Age at the 2012 IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York last month.

MLB spokesman Matt Bourne countered that baseball doesn't "compare" itself to other sports, thank you very much.

With $7.5 billion in revenue, MLB posted its 10th consecutive year of record revenue in 2012. More than 74.8 million fans attended games, the fifth-best record in baseball history. MLB also signed TV deals with Fox, Turner and ESPN that will double its annual media payout through 2021.

According to a study by Scarborough Research, 109.3 million people, or 48% of U.S. adults over 18 years of age, watched, attended or listened to an MLB game from February 2011 through March 2012.

That compares to 92.6 million, or 39% of adults, who watched, attended or listened to a college-football game during the same period.

"We are at historic levels in the ways in which we measure MLB's popularity, business success and the rate in which sports fans around the world consume the sport in all manners," Mr. Bourne said. "Baseball has never been healthier."

Other research indicates the Grand Old Game is still No. 2. But the power and pageantry of college football is grabbing younger consumers. Numbers are trending in the direction of college football.

In the latest Harris Poll, 16% of adults cited baseball as their favorite sport, compared to 11% for college football. Baseball's actually up three points from last year, when the two sports were tied at 13% while college football dropped two points. But since Harris started tracking America's favorite sports in 1985, college football has gained 1%, while baseball has gone down 7%.

College football was most popular with the 18-to-24-year-old demo and Southerners, according to Harris. Baseball was most popular with 50-to-64-year-olds and Midwesterners. The online poll was conducted from Dec. 12-18, 2012.

During their respective 2011 seasons, national advertisers spent $975 million on college football, vs. $784 million for baseball, according to Nielsen. But advertisers also spend a ton on local baseball telecasts, and Nielsen doesn't provide that data to the media. The NFL, as usual, outpaced all sports with $3.3 billion in national ad support.

ESPN's 2011 Sports Poll measured Americans ages 12 and up. Major League Baseball was named the second-favorite spectator sport by 11.7% of respondents, ahead of college football at 10% and behind the NFL at 25.6%.

But college football led baseball for second-biggest fan base: 63.6% of respondents identified themselves as fans compared to 63% for MLB and 71.2% for the NFL.

Among "avid" fans, college football was No. 2 at 24.2%, while MLB was third at 20.6% (the NFL was tops at 33.3%). The gap in "avids" has been widening, said Bill Hofheimer, an ESPN spokesman. In 2001, the two sports were almost even at 17.4% for college football and 17.0% for baseball.

Despite being a "total disaster at management," college football is already overtaking baseball, Mr. Wetzel said. The coming playoffs on ESPN in 2014 will shift growth into overdrive. "That will be a huge step for college football," he said.

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