Shrinking TV audience for college bowl games cause for concern

Alabama devouring Michigan State probably didn’t do anything to help TV ratings, but playing on New Year’s Eve was probably worse.
Alabama devouring Michigan State probably didn’t do anything to help TV ratings, but playing on New Year’s Eve was probably worse. Star-Telegram

As long as five or more quality teams are still standing each December when members of the College Football Playoff selection committee set their four-team bracket, controversy will cling to the current process of crowning a national champion.

That will not disappear if the playoff field is enlarged to eight teams, assuring a spot at the table for the champion of each Power 5 league plus a handful of wild cards. Such expansion would only shift the debate to why the No. 9 team got hosed in favor of the squeeze-in participant at No. 8.

Having said that, a bigger problem for CFP administrators than team-selection procedures surfaced Friday when ESPN released its dismal overnight ratings for this year’s semifinal games played on New Years’ Eve.

The two blowouts, which included No. 2 Alabama’s 38-0 blanking of No. 3 Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium, produced a 36 percent drop in ratings from last year’s semifinal games played on Jan. 1 in the first season of the CFP’s existence.

Bill Hancock, CFP executive director, attempted to downplay the burgeoning problem in a Friday interview with the Associated Press. Hancock said it was “just not appropriate to talk until all the results are in. It’s like asking a coach to talk about a whole game at halftime.”

Not really, Bill. America’s sports-watching public has spoken. And here are the cold, hard facts: ESPN’s overnight ratings for Thursday’s semifinal games, played on New Year’s Eve, drew a 9.9 rating for the Cotton Bowl and a 9.7 rating for the Orange Bowl. A year ago, when the semifinal games were played on Jan. 1, the Rose Bowl game commanded a 15.5 rating and the Sugar Bowl drew a 15.3 rating during prime time.

Yes, last year’s games marked a historic first — the debut of playoff football at the major-college level — and probably brought additional curiosity-seekers to the table. But the real difference in this year’s ratings, for anyone applying common sense to the situation, is this: Staging playoff games on New Year’s Day, a national holiday with a historic link to daylong college football telecasts, makes a lot more sense than trying to force viewers to stay home and watch TV on New Year’s Eve, a day and night synonymous with parties and revelry.

ESPN’s overnight ratings reflect that. In all likelihood, they will continue to reflect that on an annual basis as long as the CFP continues to cling to New Year’s Eve as the date for its semifinal games.

Sure, the lopsided nature of Thursday’s games led to some early tune-outs by casual fans. But not enough to account for the massive drop in ratings when the four teams in action (Alabama, Michigan State, Clemson, Oklahoma) all brought huge fan bases to the table for telecasts.

Expect ESPN officials, who paid roughly $7.3 billion for TV rights to CFP, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl telecasts through the 2025 season, to make a point about the ratings shortfall in off-season meetings aimed at enhancing their investment over the next decade. Especially when CFP officials balked, at this time last year, at an ESPN suggestion to move the 2015 semifinal games to Jan. 2 on a one-time basis for this season.

Under the existing contract, the CFP semifinals will be staged on New Year’s Eve twice in every three-year stretch during the 12 years of the agreement. That means seven more Dec. 31 dates for semifinal games, as opposed to three more Jan. 1 dates, over the next decade. Just a hunch, but I’m guessing Friday’s ratings will lead to some tweaking of the Dec. 31 mandate for playoff football over the next decade.

Asked about the situation during Cotton Bowl week, the competing coaches shrugged with indifference.

“I don’t really have a comment about that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “That’s not my concern. I don’t have any control over it.”

Now that the numbers are in, expect ESPN officials to show some concern and attempt to control efforts to enhance future playoff ratings. They are paying for the product and, if future date tweaks are requested, it’s hard to see them being rebuffed this time around.

From a CFP perspective, the public whines about this year’s championship game matchup — No. 1 Clemson (14-0) vs. No. 2 Alabama (13-1) on Jan. 11 — figure to register on the low end of the spectrum compared to a typical season. Having two teams that routed semifinal opponents by a combined margin of 75-17 helps sway public opinion on that front.

But public opinion, at this juncture, is not good in regard to Dec. 31 playoff games. In the controversy-filled world of CFP officials, that is Issue No. 1 to address before the start of next year’s playoff.

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