College Football Playoff ‘committed’ to New Year’s Eve despite ratings drop

College Football Playoff organizers are standing by the decision to hold games on New Year’ Eve.
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College Football Playoff organizers are standing by their decision to hold games on New Year’ Eve, according to USA Today.

The television ratings for ESPN’s semifinal broadcasts were released Friday afternoon, with the timing of the games playing a large part in a major drop in national viewership. “We are committed to this,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “Two years does not make a trend. Let’s watch this. Let’s see what happens.”

TV usage dropped 16%, according to John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal. ESPN announced a 9.9 overnight rating for the Cotton Bowl (Alabama-Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET) and a 9.7 rating for the Orange Bowl (Clemson-Oklahoma, 4 p.m. ET), the fifth and seventh-highest rated games out of approximately 1,350 college football games broadcasted by the network (excluding national title games). Last year’s semifinals brought in a 15.5 rating for the early game, the Rose Bowl between Oregon and Florida State, and a 15.3 rating for the later one, the Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama.

As SI’s Richard Deitsch noted, the first and second playoff semifinals were down 45% and 34.4% in viewership for the early and late games, respectively.

• ​DEITSCH: ESPN sees significant decline in CFP viewership

Hancock suggested that the decline in ratings had several factors beyond the date of the games. He cited a lack of competitive games (also discussing the other New Year’s Six bowls, which took a hit in ratings), as well as an “inevitable fade in excitement” from the inaugural playoff in 2014.

“It’s not clear how much any one of those factors contributed,” Hancock said. “Obviously, we all know that regardless of when the game is played, nothing attracts viewers more than a close game does.”

While TV numbers were down, the semifinal games pulled in record online streaming numbers, with the Cotton and Orange Bowls coming in second and third all-time for WatchESPN events, behind last year’s title game, and excluding all World Cup soccer matches.

• THAMEL: New Year’s Eve tradition begins for CFP — but who’s watching?

Playoff officials had hopes to create a “new tradition” for fans to plan their year-end festivities around football, but there was controversy surrounding the games’ kickoff times, given the annual celebrations surrounding New Year’s Eve and holiday travel.

In the leadup to the games, SI’s Pete Thamel spoke to several nightlife promoters who were less than thrilled with ESPN’s broadcast timing, and pointed out that last year’s games—played on Jan. 1—drew the biggest cable audience in television history (28 million viewers). But with those prime New Year’s Day time slots belonging to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, that scenario changed.

Playoff officials also passed on the opportunity to move the semifinals to Saturday, Jan. 2, opting to gamble on New Year’s Eve kickoffs. ESPN had attempted to convince executives to play on Saturday this year only, given the opportunity presented by the calendar, but executives opted not to stray from the original plan.

Alabama faces Clemson in the national championship game Jan. 11, which will kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET.