DALLAS -- On the eve of the first College Football Playoff championship on Monday night, the sport finds itself amid an astonishing boom. The inaugural semifinals smashed even the most optimistic projections for television ratings, as the playoff games drew the biggest audience in cable television history. The more than 28 million people who watched each game surpassed NFL playoff viewership that weekend and showcased the potent potential of combining college football with a playoff format.
But just when college football finally seemed to figure things out, we’re reminded of the complicated politics, overt greed and lack of leadership that often overshadow the game’s best interest. This season the Sugar and Rose bowls hosted the semifinals on New Year’s Day. The combination of the compelling matchups -- Ohio State against Alabama and Oregon against Florida State -- and the traditional Jan. 1 time slot made for blockbuster ratings.
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Next season, an old tradition will return: the self-interest of college commissioners trumping common sense. Instead of the semifinals being played on New Year’s Day, where they would crush the ratings, they are scheduled on New Years Eve. (Props to Awful Announcing for pointing this out last week.)
While this may not seem like a big deal on the surface, the viewership is destined to plummet when the Orange and Cotton bowls host the semifinals on Dec. 31. The Rose and Sugar bowls will be second-tier games in the sport’s most coveted and traditional time slots on Jan. 1.
“You lose some of the casual fan,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Any time you put a game on in anything other than the optimal time slot, you’re going to lose something. Houses watching TV on New Year’s Eve are down. It’s fair criticism.”
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ESPN pays $470 million annually to televise the playoff, and network executives admit the timing isn’t ideal. “New Year’s Eve is going to be a challenge,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president for programming acquisitions. “That’s the part of the format that’s going to require a retraining of people’s behavior and fan’s behavior. You’re competing against real life and the ball dropping and New Year’s Eve parties.”
New Year’s Eve isn’t a federal holiday, which means many people will be at work. (If a game kicks off at 2 p.m. PT, that cuts out a huge swath of potential audience for the first game.) But more than fighting the working crowd will be fighting the drinking and partying crowd, as it’s hard to imagine the centuries-long traditions of going out on New Year Eve being upended by people suddenly wanting to stay home and watch college football. In the home of the casual fan, Dick Clark will win out over Nick Saban, every time. “We always thought that having college football recapture New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day will change the way that America celebrates the holiday,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said on Sunday.
Nice try. That sounds great in a boardroom or on a PowerPoint presentation, but trying to get people to watch seven hours of football on New Year’s Eve instead of going out with family and friends is ludicrous in reality. That's especially true in places like New York, Boston and Washington, huge TV markets but not large college football markets. This is like moving the Super Bowl to Christmas Eve and expecting everyone to rearrange their family traditions.
So, why is this happening? Why is college football’s most compelling content competing with New Year’s Eve parties instead of exploiting the sure-fire viewership of New Year’s Day hangovers?
What the leaders of college sports will quickly tell you is that you are so lucky to have a playoff you shouldn’t be complaining about pesky details like when the games are played. “This is not intended to produce the maximum amount of money,” Delany said. “It’s balancing a variety of interests.”
Blame the inevitable ratings drop, distinct inconvenience and lack of common sense on a parade. The Rose Bowl has a contract with ESPN through 2026 to show the game in the 5 p.m. ET slot. (The Tournament of Roses Parade is on New Year’s Day, so how could they ever change the game time?) The prime-time spot on New Year’s Day that follows belongs to the Sugar Bowl, with the SEC and Big 12 having a contract also through '26. Both are for the preposterous price of $80 million per year, which is essentially so expensive that if ads ran for the entire time slot ESPN would still lose money. So, why did ESPN pay so much for games that will only be involved in the playoff every third year? Those around the process believe that buying these games gave ESPN an inside track on the playoff. And ESPN wasn’t losing the bidding war for the playoff, so it covered all the bases.
“It’s a balancing act,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said on Sunday. “If our interest was solely how do you maximize eyeballs and attention around the semi games, undoubtedly we’d have said the semi games every year are going to be 5:00 and 8:30 on New Year’s Day.”
The hypocrisy here is the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 are using the tradition of the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl to hoard money by hogging those coveted time slots. They earned them with their brand equity, and aren't giving them up.
The Rose Bowl’s unwillingness to budge from its time slot -- there’s a parade to consider, after all -- has impeded progress for college football’s postseason for decades. SEC commissioner Mike Slive realized this -- trust me, it irked him for years -- and created his own untouchable property after getting sick of attempting to maneuver about Delany’s. (Slive declined an interview on Sunday, as he has declined all interviews since announcing he is fighting prostate cancer in October.)
What Slive and the Big 12 did to create a game of mirroring value is smart and savvy business. But it’s undercutting the sport and epitomizes how in college football there’s so much concern with everyone protecting their own slice of the pie that it inhibits the whole pie from growing. What’s comical with all this blathering about the tradition of the Rose and Sugar bowls is that if Ohio State played Alabama in the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho, in the same time slot it would do the same exact ratings as if it were in Pasadena or New Orleans. There’s an understanding and respect for the traditions of those games, but the reality is the venue and branding don’t matter any more. The postseason will trump all, and bowls that don’t host the semis or the finals will become less and less relevant each year. (The fact that about 41 people attended the Orange Bowl this year proved that.)
Ultimately, don’t expect anything to change. There’s at least one solution for next season that could save the New Year’s Eve ratings dip. Since New Year’s Day falls on a Friday, the playoff games could be played on Saturday (Jan. 2) instead of on Thursday (Dec. 31). The NFL will be in Week 17 and doesn’t traditionally play Saturday games. That would provide an ideal showcase without expecting people to rearrange their lives on New Year’s Eve. It only makes sense. (Which, in college sports, doesn’t mean it will actually happen.)
After that, however, the New Year’s Eve sociology experiment destined for failure will proceed as (poorly) planned. “I think that every bowl that’s involved in the semifinals has given up some things,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t think it’s right to ask them to give up everything.”
Instead, they’ll only be asking Americans to change a lifetime of habits on New Year’s Eve. And as the casual fan revels in New Year's Eve celebrations, it’s college football’s leaders who are dropping the ball.