If you were planning the perfect day to air the College Football Playoff semifinals, New Year's Eve would not rank very high on the list. Given Dec. 31 isn’t a federal holiday, plenty of potential viewers will work during the day, not to mention the revelry and bacchanalia that comes after dark.
The lords of college football, however, suggest you will forget such old acquaintances.
"We really do think we're going to change the paradigm of New Year's Eve," said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff.
Maybe they will, but it's going to take some time. This year’s college football semifinals (the Cotton and Orange bowls) will be played on Dec. 31, a date that does not benefit sports television viewers. The first semifinal is set for 4 p.m. ET; the later game will kick around 8 p.m. (The winners will compete for the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.) ESPN said that New Year’s Eve dates for the College Football Playoff semifinals were always part of the framework of a 12-year, $5.6 billion deal, but network officials pushed hard to move off the date this season because they saw an opportunity to take advantage of a free day on the sports calendar—(Saturday) Jan. 2.
“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.”
Ben-Hanan said ESPN officials had multiple conversations with Hancock last winter, but the College Football Playoff executives would not budge. “We thought the bowls would have liked it for on-site attendance reasons because it was a Saturday,” Ben-Hanan said. “There was a lot to like about it, but in the end it was their decision. They are very invested in establishing this new tradition, something we will of course be helping them do as a partner.”
Will airing semifinal games on New Year’s Eve mean lower ratings this year versus those from last season, which set cable records? Most likely, yes. The one caveat is that matchups often dictate ratings in college football, so ESPN might still get lucky if four mega-powers play. Regardless, expect the viewership to be down.
“They [ESPN] know New Year’s Eve is not an optimal day to televise these events,” said Brad Adgate, the head of research at Horizon Media. “First, it’s travel either by car, airplane, etc., since millions will be visiting friends and relatives and will not be home watching. Perhaps there will be lower gas prices—the economy is still pretty strong—[and] a lot of these are factors [affecting] what people will do. This year New Year’s Eve is a Thursday so it is going to be the start of a long holiday weekend. Despite lower TV usage it’s also the competition, especially in prime time with specials across several networks including New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (on sister network ABC). FOX had a New Year’s special last season with Pitbull; NBC had Carson Daly host a New Year’s Eve event. Another factor is this is the second year, so all the buzz and excitement of year one will not be there.
“That said, live sports are so popular these days and ESPN is so savvy about marketing themselves, they have a wide platform to promote these games. I wouldn’t rule out another huge rating, but the question is would it have been higher if the game were played on another day? Probably yes. The bottom line is there will be a lot of noise that weekend which ESPN could live without, and all things being equal it may have a negative impact on the audience.”
ESPN officials hope the New Year’s Day ratings for the Rose, Sugar and Fiesta bowl games will be up over those from last season's New Year’s Eve games.
“It will certainly be more challenging year over year with the New Year’s dates,” Ben-Hanan said. “It would be total smoke-blowing to say we expect the numbers to be the same. I think we have hope that over the two days the ratings can be up year over year.”
One challenge ESPN faces is changing the mindset of viewers not accustomed to watching college football on New Year’s Eve. Ben-Hanan said he does not expect that change to come overnight, and that ESPN plans to work with ABC on cross-branding initiatives. Thus, you’ll see ESPN telling people to tune to ABC as soon as the game is over and vice versa.
“I do think there is plenty of precedent for viewers tuning into sports on unorthodox days and times,” Ben-Hanan said. “The one that comes to mind is March Madness. That opening day and times—granted they have been there for decades at this point—a lot of people are at work, but they are still finding ways to watch the games because they are exciting and big. The college football semifinals are at another order of magnitude given the size and significance. Certainly, there will be some people watching at work, but luckily we live in an era where there are a lot of other ways to tune in.”
“I think the diehards will change [their habits] immediately because they are going to want to find these games,” Ben-Hannan continued. “It means that eventually when people start planning New Year’s Eve parties, there is more of an emphasis on making sure that there is a TV tuned into the game. It’s a major behavior and cultural shift and that’s a long-term play. That will not be a year one fix. But I can assure you that a lot of your messaging around the playoff this year is that New Year’s Eve is going to be different.”
Ben-Hanan said his department worked with ESPN’s research and audience development groups to determine the best times for kickoff. Start times of 5 and 8:30 p.m. ET were also considered.
“We ultimately decided on 4 and 8 especially in year one to try to get these games done before midnight Eastern,” Ben-Hanan said. “It may not happen but we want to plan for the opportunity for it. I think that sets up the best opportunity for success.”
There’s definitely a chance, albeit slim, that the late game will go past midnight on the East Coast—and that would create an interesting TV moment. “I think at that point, if you are that late in the game, chances are the game is crescendoing and viewership is peaking,” Ben-Hanan said. “There may be some people tuning over [to New Year’s Eve programming], but I hope the people in charge of the remote controls are going to be deft and switch back and forth if needed. It would be funny to watch the minute-by-minute ratings if that happened between 11:59, midnight and 12:01. There is certainly no precedent to it.”