The numbers are in and the results were not good for the College Football Playoff and ESPN. As noted yesterday, the TV ratings for the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl semifinal games in the College Football Playoff drew solid numbers by many accounts, but took a massive nosedive compared to the numbers from the previous season. Playing on New Years Eve was a tradition the playoff folks wanted to sell despite ESPN begging and pleading for an adjustment to the schedule.
Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated reports ESPN drew an audience of 18,552,000 for the Cotton Bowl and 15,640,000 for the Orange Bowl. That is a lot of people, without question. However, each playoff game a year ago drew an average audience of over 28 million. That is a lot of people who chose not to watch the playoff this season.
What makes the decision to play on December 31 even more maddening is the fact today was wide open for the taking to keep everybody happy. Here are a few reasons why January 2 would have been exponentially better for the College Football Playoff, compared to New Years Eve;
No NFL scheduling conflicts
College football scores well in the TV ratings, but the NFL is still king. If the idea is to avoid getting into any scheduling conflicts with NFL programming, that was not an issue this year. The NFL is entering the final week of the regular season and has a full line-up on Sunday. No Saturday games. No Monday night games. Every game in the final week is played on Sunday. Playing the College Football Playoff semifinal games on Saturday would have been the biggest draw on TV today, without any threat of competition from any other sport or league.
There would be some minor scheduling issues to address, with the Dallas Cowboys playing the next day at home after the Cotton Bowl and the Miami Dolphins playing at home the next day after the Orange Bowl, but the benefit of advance scheduling for the playoff and the NFL could easily avoid any issues if needed. The same could hold true in Atlanta and Arizona if needed. This isn’t that hard.
The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl would be satisfied
One of the main reasons the College Football Playoff played semifinal games on New Years Eve is because the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl would not yield time slots on January 1. In a sport where tradition seems to be abandoned for the almighty dollar, the irony here is priceless. But the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl could have stayed right where they were on January 1 and the College Football Playoff could put their top games the following day instead, and used the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl to help push viewers to tune in the following day. This was a massive strategic failure for the College Football Playoff. Instead, these games provided a limited push for a championship game that won’t be played for another week and a half.
After all, isn’t Saturday what college football is for? Why not take advantage of that?
College football is played on Saturday, for the most part. With no other threat to TV programming, the College Football Playoff should have used THIS day to line up the biggest games of the year, when fewer people are missing games due to work schedules and holiday get-togethers and more. Don’t blame ESPN. They tried. From Deitsch’s report:
“We approached the CFP with a one-year change—and really a one-year-only opportunity—because of a complete quirk in the calendar,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. “With Saturday being a traditional college football day, we thought it could be a great one-time opportunity to have the semifinals fall on Jan. 2. You would have the Rose and Sugar and Fiesta [bowls] on Jan. 1 as it already is scheduled and then you would move what is the current New Year’s Eve schedule to Jan. 2. We approached the CFP with [the idea], the CFP vetted it and they decided to stick with the regularly scheduled calendar, which is fine, and we move forward.”
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock declined to comment on the New Years Six scheduling until after the New Years Day ratings come in. Those numbers should be more positive for the College Football Playoff, although it will be important to not get too carried away with an expected drop in Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl ratings, as those games served as playoff games last season. A string of blowouts should have an interesting impact as well.
Once the College Football Playoff lets the rating numbers sink in, they would be asinine not to see the benefit of moving the biggest games off of New Years Eve, even if they think it is a nice tradition.