If you believe in the law of TV averages, ESPN was due to broadcast a dramatic national title game after a New Year’s Six bowl schedule that was catastrophic on the ratings front—and the network got it with the Crimson Tide's thrilling 45–40 victory over Clemson on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz.
What the network did not get was viewership numbers even close to those from last year. The national title game drew a 25.7 million viewers on ESPN, down 23% from the 2015 championship. (That game—Ohio State’s 42–20 win over Oregon—drew 33.8 million viewers.) If you factor in ESPN's complete Megacast coverage, the viewership was 26.182 million. Those are disappointing numbers given the quality of the game. The ’16 title game did not have nearly the buzz of last year’s contest, perhaps a byproduct of how badly the College Football Playoff executives bungled New Year’s Eve.
For an interesting comparison: The Duke-Wisconsin men’s basketball national title game last April drew 28.3 million viewers on CBS on a Monday night. Rarely does college basketball trump college football in this kind of head-to-head comparison.
Birmingham was the No. 1 local market for the game, earning a 59.2 overnight, the market’s third best overnight for a postseason college football game on ESPN. The top 10 metered markets for the game were Birmingham (59.2), Greenville, S.C. (39.0), Atlanta (30.1), Nashville (29.1), Knoxville, Tenn. (28.4), New Orleans (25.6), Jacksonville (24.8), Columbus, Ohio, (23.0), Charlotte (22.8) and West Palm Beach, Fla. (20.3).
ESPN said it had 1,934,000 unique viewers digitally, the company’s best ever number for a college football game. The viewership audience was the sixth-best in the history of cable television.
During its title game coverage, ESPN provided a glimpse of what it does best—innovation. The Megacast, now in its third year, continues to offer one of the most viewer-friendly experiences in all of sports. I tried to sample as many options as I could throughout the first half on Monday night, and I found myself gravitating to a pair of them: the Finebaum Film Room on the SEC Network and the Megacast’s perennial star, the coaches’ Film Room on ESPN2. The Finebaum show lagged a bit behind the game in real time, but the conversation and analysis between Greg McElroy, Booger McFarland and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was so sharp and interesting I was willing to live with that as a viewer. To his credit, Paul Finebaum did what a host in this situation should: Get you, and your ego, out of the way.
McElroy, one of the best young college football analysts for any network, was quick to identify Alabama’s offensive line getting upfield pressure before tailback Derrick Henry scored the Crimson Tide’s first touchdown on a 50-yard scamper in the first quarter. Given that he is a former Alabama quarterback, McElroy was able to tell viewers the exact name of the play—Circle Seven and Go—that produced Tide quarterback Jake Coker’s 38-yard completion to ArDarius Stewart in the fourth quarter.
McFarland was on point when describing the effectiveness of Alabama sophomore offensive tackle Cam Robinson, who was regularly winning his matchups at the line of scrimmage. Bielema, meanwhile, was unfiltered and prepared. Kudos to producers Pete Watters and Brad Buchanan and director Joe Santagata. They made their company look very good.
Florida coach Jim McElwain and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp—both of whom are very familiar with the Crimson Tide’s game-planning and execution—were the standouts of the coaches’ room. It was refreshing to watch a broadcast that was truly an extended conversation between people who weren’t trying to perform.
The negatives for the Film Room: Many viewers complained about the size of the game screen (that’s an annual complaint) and, unless Brian Griese or Chris Spielman mentioned a coach by name, it was not always clear who was speaking. Film Room producer Bryan Ryder and director Ed Curran wanted the coaches to talk organically, and that’s why ESPN2 would sometimes cut to a commercial break when a coach was mid-sentence. That may have been jarring as a viewer, but the goal was for these guys to feel comfortable in this setting. They are not TV presenters and should not be expected to take viewers into a break. The broadcast drew 227,000 viewers on ESPN2.
Where that paradigm did not work as well was in the Megacast options featuring traditional on-air talent. When I watched the ESPN Voices option on ESPNews, I saw Jay Bilas about to answer a Twitter question when the show suddenly cut to break. Not good. The Student Section (ESPN3), Data Center (ESPN3), Sounds of the Game (ESPN Classic and ESPN 3), Pylon Cam (ESPN3), Command Center (ESPN Goal Line) and Homer Telecast (ESPNU) options were all good for short visits. Once again, kudos to ESPN for offering one of the most viewer-friendly productions for fans.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. For the MMQB, I profiled Bill Belichick, TV analyst.
1a. The NFL said that the Packers-Redskins game on Fox averaged 38.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched telecast of any kind since Super Bowl XLIX and the most-watched game of Wild Card weekend. Fox said the game projects to rank as the highest-rated telecast among adults 18–49 since last year’s Super Bowl and was the fourth most-watched NFC wild-card game on Fox dating back to the 1994–95 season (22 games).
The Packers-Redskins game was down 8% from last season’s equivalent game (Lions-Cowboys), which averaged 42.3 million viewers. Green Bay–Washington drew a 55.1 rating in Milwaukee and a 38.6 rating in Washington, D.C.
1b. The Seahawks-Vikings game on NBC averaged 35.3 million viewers, the most-watched early Sunday wild-card game on record. NBC said it was up 25% from last year’s early Sunday wild-card contest (28.3 million for Bengals-Colts on CBS).
2. Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand reported on Monday that the NFL is looking into the possibility of splitting up its Thursday night package and selling it to two, or even three, broadcast networks. The league asked the networks to submit bids on eight- to 10-game packages. However, it also requested CBS, Fox and NBC submit bids covering three to five games. (By contract, NFL Network has to carry at least eight regular-season games exclusively or else the affiliate rate cable/satellite/telco distributors pay for the channel drops significantly.)
Ourand reported the NFL is selling the series’ digital rights as a separate package and has sent requests to companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and Yahoo to bid.
2a. The NFL Network will re-air Super Bowl I on Jan. 15 at 8 p.m., the first time the game has been aired since 1967. The network is a running a three-hour program with pregame, halftime and postgame segments, as well as modern broadcast graphics and coverage, and live reaction from guests. Here’s the NFL Network press release and a story on how it procured the footage, via Richard Sandomir of The New York Times.
3. Episode No. 38 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features guest PFT Commenter, the gritty NFL writer and the chief political correspondent for SB Nation. He’s also the host of The Steamroom on SiriusXM.
In this episode—in which PFT Commenter doesn't break character—he explains how he got his start in the sports takes business, which writers he reads daily and how he sees the nexus of sports and politics. PFT Commenter also answers questions like: If Bill Belichick could be any animal, what would he be? Is Danny Woodhead underrated? Will Donald Trump get the GOP nomination? There is all of that and much more.
A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet to me at @richarddeitsch.
4. The most downloaded podcast in the iTunes Sports and Recreation rankings is consistently The Bill Simmons Podcast, with the occasional ESPN, Fox Sports or pro wrestling podcast staking claim to the top spot. So, it was remarkable to see on Monday that The Matt Jones Podcast, which focuses on Kentucky athletics, soared past Simmons’s podcast to No. 1 on the list. Jones is the founder of KentuckySportsradio.com, the largest independent college sports blog in the U.S. On Twitter he said that his podcast has a very high number of subscribers from among Wildcats fans and regularly ranks in the top 20 amid all of the major brands and wrestling podcasts. As to why he ascended so high this week, Jones said, “We did a Making a Murderer episode that has been really popular, but in general it is just our very loyal/large audience.”
5. ESPN will air more than 100 hours of live television—and a record of nearly 1,400 on WatchESPN, including every singles, doubles and mixed doubles match—from the Australian Open. The tournament runs from Jan. 17 to Jan. 31.
5a. Here’s a breakdown of NFL regular-season ratings for CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and the NFL Network.