A new tradition begins for the College Football Playoff on New Year's Eve—but who will be watching?
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Walk past the gold columns and through the gleaming white marble lobby of The Miami Beach Edition hotel, and a stairway leads down to one of South Beach's trendier nightspots. The club Basement includes a four-lane bowling alley, a 1,600 square-foot ice-skating rink and booths where famous DJs regularly ply their trade. Basement is a testament to South Beach opulence, and it is set to host about 1,500 partiers on New Year's Eve—when it will also be in direct competition with the biggest college football games of the year.
This will be the first time that the College Football Playoff's semifinals will be on New Year's Eve, meaning that the established traditions of nightlife and revelry will be squaring off against what playoff officials have attempted to spin as a "new tradition" of college football fans planning their night around the games.
The prospects for such New Year's customs as fancy parties, high-end dinners and last-call chases to be altered significantly by seven hours of football aren't good for ESPN and the playoff's management committee. The director of nightlife at the Edition calls the decision to play the semifinals on Dec. 31 "arrogant." A Boston restaurant magnate says the games are "not a factor" in her restaurants' New Year's plans. And a nightlife kingpin in Los Angeles says this year's playoff schedule is "idiotic" and "just stupid."
"The biggest thing that they are losing out on is the biggest demographic there is: ages 17 to 35," says Jarred Grant, the director of nightlife at The Miami Beach Edition. "No one ages 17 to 35 is home on New Year's Eve. It's going to be erased from the attention of a large sector of the population."
While hardcore college football fans have long braced for this awkward clash of football and nightlife, casual fans in nontraditional college hotbeds don't understand why the season's best games aren't being played on New Year's Day. This is especially confusing because last year's games on Jan. 1—in their made-for-hangovers afternoon and evening time slots—drew the biggest cable audience in television history (28 million). This year's semis won't be held on New Year's Day because those time slots are, until 2026, already allotted to the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. And if there is one thing we've learned over the years about the conference commissioners who run college football, it's that they care little about the greater good of the game if it means losing dollars from their own wallets.
So, that has led Bill Hancock, the College Football Playoff's executive director, to spearhead a tone-deaf charge to urge Americans to change the tradition of planning New Year's Eve around champagne toasts. Playoff officials had a chance earlier this year to move the semis to Jan. 2, a Saturday with no competition from NFL games, but they were apparently so eager to begin the "new tradition" of playing games on New Year's Eve that they decided to inconvenience fans and risk losing millions of viewers. "It just didn't feel right for us to delay the start of the new tradition by one year," Hancock recently told CBS.
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The phrase "new tradition" is an oxymoron, and not surprisingly, Hancock's rationale has been met with puzzlement and mockery. Television ratings are expected to take the biggest hit on the West Coast. New Year's Eve isn't a federal holiday, and the Oklahoma-Clemson Orange Bowl will start at 1 p.m. Pacific time. That means that most folks won't be home from work in time to watch any of the first game. "The people they are screwing are the people that have to work," says Josh Richman, the owner of swanky Hyde Sunset Kitchen + Cocktails and a heavyweight in L.A. nightlife for two decades. "It's just crazy. [The playoff is] set up to just blow the doors off on January 2nd and just own the country."
While it's naïve to think the games will be ignored and won't attract viewers, especially in traditional college football hotbeds, the current set-up does little to lure in casual fans in large and customarily pro-sports markets. Spouses who like college football will have to convince their significant others that they're going to be spending about seven hours in front of the television on a day that they'd traditionally go out to dinner or to a party. And that's assuming that casual fans will bother to factor the games into their plans at all. Grant estimates that there will be 70,000 tourists in South Beach this weekend who won't see a single play from either of the two semis. He says that Basement likely won't put the game on its televisions because it would take away from the party atmosphere. People going out, after all, want to see the ball drop, not players dropping a ball. Score one for Dick Clark over Nick Saban.
Kathy Sidell owns and operates four restaurants in and around Boston and another in Bethesda, Md. She says that she has gotten no calls about whether her establishments will be showing the games. "They're not a factor at all in any planning," she says. "I'd imagine they'll be background noise."
But does it matter how many people will actually watch the semifinals? As it turns out, not as much as people think. With the games shifting from network TV to cable, television consultant Kevin O'Malley says that the amount of revenue ESPN will make isn't as directly tied to a ratings as it was on network television a decade ago. He says that cable subscribers are "paying the freight" when it comes to ESPN making money, making the individual rating much less important. He also notes that many sponsors have been paying for advertising packages all season, which helps further lessen the import of the ratings of the two games. "Individual ratings of games are not as important," O'Malley says. "Years ago getting a 14 or a 15 rating was critical. Now it's not."
O'Malley says that New Year's Eve ratings are notoriously hard to gauge, as many of Nielsen's television sets are being watched by groups of people rather than families or individual viewers. That makes the already flawed metrics of gauging television viewership even trickier. He predicts that ratings for the Orange Bowl, with its 4 p.m. ET time slot, could dip 20 to 30% from last year.
Another consultant, former CBS president Neal Pilson, disagrees with O'Malley's prediction that ratings for the first game will dip significantly. Pilson says that people will be watching at home as they prepare for go out for the evening. "I'll make a small wager that cumulative ratings for both games are going to be in the same area as last year," he says. "The first game will get a very good rating. The second game will be impacted by our culture."
ESPN officials aren't thrilled with the current set-up. They would prefer New Year's Day games for their $7.3 billion. But ESPN also signed the Rose Bowl to an $80 million annual contract in June 2012, the same month that the College Football Playoff was announced. So, it's hard to feel too badly for the network. (ESPN followed up on its arrangement with the Rose Bowl a few months later with a similar deal for the Sugar Bowl—essentially a political counter by the Big 12 and SEC to ensure another prime television slot.)
The high-stakes bowl politics have resulted in the sport losing out on chances to reach new fans in non-traditional markets.
"It's like saying, Let's have the Super Bowl on New Year's Eve," Grant says. "It's arrogant."