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ESPN sees significant decline in CFP semis viewership on New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve proved an unpopular date for the CFP semifinals. ESPN drew 18,552,000 viewers for the Cotton Bowl and 15,640,000 viewers for the Orange Bowl after drawing just over 28 million viewers for each semifinal last season.

The college football public has spoken loudly: New Years Eve is not a popular choice for the College Football Playoff semifinals.

ESPN drew 18,552,000 viewers for its Cotton Bowl broadcast of Alabama’s 38–0 win over Michigan State, while the Orange Bowl matchup featuring Clemson’s 37–17 victory over Oklahoma drew 15,640,000 viewers. Both playoff games last year drew just over 28 million viewers. The first playoff semifinal was down 45% in viewership versus last year; the late semifinal was down 34.4%.

On the plus side, the Orange Bowl was up 111% from last season’s New Year’s Eve late afternoon game (Fiesta Bowl) and up 75% from the 2014 Orange Bowl. The digital story was also very good. ESPN said Oklahoma-Clemson drew 1,188,000 unique viewers for its WatchESPN broadcast, the second-most ever viewers for any sporting event, excluding the World Cup, on WatchESPN. (Last year's title game ranks ahead.) Alabama-Michigan State had 1,047,000 unique viewers, ranking fourth on that same list.

• College Football Playoff TV ratings drop with New Year’s Eve time slots

As reported in July, 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: Jan. 2 (Saturday).

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“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 College Football Playoff executive director Bill 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.”

On Friday Hancock told the Associated Press that he would await the ratings for the New Year’s Day games before making any declaration.

“It’s just not appropriate to talk until all the results are in,” Hancock said.