ESPN eyes better ratings for New Year's Eve college playoff
New Year's Eve and the College Football Playoff were not a great mix last year.
ESPN is hoping that changes Saturday.
After ratings for the CFP semifinals plummeted last year - doomed in part by two blowouts - the playoff adjusted future schedules to avoid conflict with the biggest social-gathering night of the year. That change came far too late to affect this year's semis, so the Alabama-Washington and Ohio State-Clemson games will occur Saturday while countless fans prepare to ring in 2017.
''I think we're definitely hopeful,'' said ESPN vice president of programming Nick Dawson, who oversees college football for the network. ''It's a good mix across the country for us. Hopefully, competitive games - that's the one part obviously we can't control - but the other factors that tilt in our favor over last year are a Saturday date for Dec. 31 and also the slight adjustment we made with the start times.''
Moving those games up an hour than what the schedule was last year might prove big. Alabama-Washington at the Peach Bowl begins at 3 p.m. EST, Ohio State-Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl begins at 7 p.m. Both games are on ESPN.
Those with New Year's parties in Tuscaloosa and Seattle, they're certainly safe.
Those in Columbus and South Carolina, they may miss the first few hours of ''Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest'' but should be free in plenty of time to see the ball drop in Times Square.
''You're not going to remake New Year's Eve,'' ESPN college football commentator Brent Musburger said on a recent conference call. ''It's not happening. That's a longer tradition than a College Football Playoff. We've all got parties to go to.
''You're not going to beat the parties on New Year's Eve. All the wives, mothers of the world, they put up with all of us football fans through the years. But New Year's Eve? I don't think so.''
The next time the CFP is scheduled to collide with New Year's Eve is 2021, after the changes made earlier this year.
In the initial year of the CFP, with the semifinals on Jan. 1 and with the added benefit of the playoff being new and different - not to mention top coaches like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer squaring off in one game, top quarterbacks like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the other - the Ohio State-Alabama and Florida State-Oregon games averaged about 28.2 million viewers.
Last year, on Dec. 31, Michigan State-Alabama and Oklahoma-Clemson averaged about 17 million viewers.
''Certainly the New Year's Eve date, a midweek date, was part of the issue,'' Dawson said. ''But it is shortsighted to say it is the entire issue.''
To be fair, the viewership numbers also do not tell the entire story.
ESPN had more than 1 million people following each of the semifinals through digital streaming last year, with nearly 2 million doing so for the championship game. And it's not like the games have been disasters - out of the six total games in the first two years of the CFP, four ranked among the six most-watched cable telecasts in history, ESPN said.
''We're in a good position with our partners, our advertisers,'' Dawson said. ''I think everyone feels optimistic about what (Saturday) may bring.''