January 13, 2016

SKEDBALL: The New Year’s Eve Fiasco for the College Football Playoff

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Written by: Mitch Metcalf
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After years of suffering through the unsatisfying BCS system, college football fans were treated to a vast improvement: the College Football Playoff system, starting on New Year’s Day 2015 to settle the 2014 NCAA season.  The playoffs started appropriately enough at the Rose Bowl, “The Granddaddy of Them All” and one of the most picturesque venues in all of sports.  Later in prime time on 1.1.2015 the playoffs continued at the Sugar Bowl, and the short playoff series ended on 1.12.2015 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas with over 33 million viewers watching on television at home on ESPN.

This year, the audience for the championship game dropped -23% to 25.7 million viewers, but the seeds for that decline were planted in the first round, which was played on New Year’s Eve rather than New Year’s Day.  In terms of TV audience potential, it’s like moving from the major leagues to the low minors or from Broadway to dinner theater.  Last year, the CFP put its best foot forward with the Rose and Sugar bowls hosting the semifinals, but that format will happen only once every three years under the current contract, which spreads the wealth around six bowls.  This year, the semifinals were played at the Orange and Cotton bowls, and no one is willing or able to tell the Rose Bowl to move from their 5 pm ET January 1 time period.  (Well, actually the Rose Bowl will move to January 2 at 5 pm ET when New Year’s falls on a Sunday, by tradition — more on that in a moment.)  But New Year’s Day was not a Sunday this year, so the Rose Bowl stayed put on January 1, and the semifinals were played on December 31, as the contract stated.  But December 31 is a truly awful day for television.  Not as bad as December 24 and July 4 (always the least viewed nights of the year) but pretty soft in terms of available audience.  The chart below lays out the lower audience potential for each step in the playoffs this year and last.  The late afternoon Semifinal #1 time period got hit the hardest, down a big -24% in total viewers and down a hefty -29% in the key male 18-49 sports demo.  Almost one-third of the young male audience available last year for the first playoff game just vanished this year.  And even those who are available on December 31 are highly distracted by the upcoming festivities later in the evening.

College Football Playoff Available Audience  2014-2015

The available audience recovered a bit in the time period for Semifinal #2 (the prime time game), particularly with older viewers (men 50+), but the male 18-34 audience watching TV was still off a very big -23% this year.  Fewer viewers available to watch the semifinal games and therefore less likely to get invested in the championship game a week and a half later.  And those viewers who could watch were less likely to devote a large chunk of time to watch all of one game, let alone both games.

With those handicaps in place, the first semifinal game (Clemson 37 Oklahoma 17) got out of the gate with an average audience almost half of last year’s even less competitive game.  And the second semifinal game was about a third lower than last year across the demographic board.  The playoffs of any sport build momentum, and a sluggish start really lessens the potential for the final.  And that is why we saw roughly -25% declines this year for what was a terrific championship game on the field.  Of course, 25.7 million viewers is still a huge audience.  But the question is how many viewers were left on the table?  Advertisers are certainly not pleased, and they are reportedly negotiating with ESPN about “make-goods” (additional spots in future programs to make up the difference from the expected audience).

College Football Playoff Game Ratings 2014-2015

To this point, the College Football Playoff committee has stated they will keep the semi-finals on December 31 two of every three years for the next decade as their contract with ESPN states.  Next year, January 1 falls on a Sunday, so the Rose Bowl (which will not host a semifinal game again until 2018) will indeed move to Monday, January 2.  The semifinals conceivably could then play on January 1 and solve this problem except of course there will be a full slate of NFL games on January 1, 2017.  So that puts the CFP semifinals back on Saturday, December 31, unless they get creative and schedule around the Rose Bowl by putting one semifinal in prime time on January 2 and the other on Tuesday night January 3.  This year, the CFP refused to listen to ESPN’s appeals to move the semifinals to Saturday January 2.  Perhaps the CFP will soften and listen to reason as the numbers sink in.


About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.