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Media Circus: College Football Ratings Are on the Decline

The decline of NFL viewership has rightfully been one of the biggest sports media stories of the past two years but less has been written about where college football stands in aggregate viewership. 

The decline of NFL viewership has rightfully been one of the biggest sports media stories of the past two years but less has been written about where college football stands in aggregate viewership. College football is a tougher game to analyze for ratings experts given a number of factors including the innate regionalism of the sport, and the massive number of national windows between ESPN’s multiple networks, Fox and FS1, CBS and CBSSN, NBC and NBCSN and others.

One of the best analysts at making sense of sports television and digital ratings is Austin Karp, the assistant managing editor of Sports Business Daily. Last week Karp examined the 2017 regular season viewership for college football and found that CBS, ABC, NBC and ESPN all posted significant declines this season. Fox was the one outlier, with record-high viewership thanks to its new Big Ten deal. Karp said ratings were not available for conference channels like SEC Network, Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network.

Per Karp, here’s where the networks finished for average viewership for this year’s CFB regular season:

CBS: 4.951 million viewers, down 10% from 5.489 million in 2016.

ABC: 4.203 million, down 18% from 5.097 million.

Fox: 3.625 million, up 23% from 2.951 million.

NBC: 2.742, down 3% from 2.814 million.

ESPN: 2.155 million, down 6% from 2.300 million.

FS1: 819,000, up 4% from 743,000.

Some interesting thoughts from Karp in the piece: CBS's SEC package was the most-viewed individual package for the ninth straight CFB season, but this year’s average was its lowest in well over a decade. ABC’s Saturday Night Football was down 4% from 2016, even though its window remained college football’s most-viewed window with 5.7 million viewers. ESPN was easily the most-viewed cable net for CFB—it has the most games so that lowers its average—but was down with fewer Big Ten matchups. FS1’s average was its best since the network launched but below what the cable net FX averaged for its games in ’11 (1.01 million viewers).

On Sunday I spoke to Karp about whether CFB officials should be worried about the declines in average viewership.

“I don’t think that meant less interest in college football,” Karp said. “If anything, I’d say the interest was higher this season compared to some prior years. If you look at total minutes viewed for college football, it had to be some sort of record this year. There were some really exciting matchups and Fox Sports really stepped up their game this year—the company’s first with the Big Ten regular season lineup. You could often find three college football windows on the Fox broadcast window this season, which never happened before. With a healthy dose on FS1, they are making themselves a destination for college football now. But this is a zero-sum game, particularly as it relates to the Power Five conferences. Fox Sports’ gain was ABC/ESPN’s loss, as the new Big Ten contracts meant Bristol had fewer options with regard to top teams. While Saturday Night Football on ABC still got some bigger matchups, there were just fewer options for Saturday afternoon windows. As good as a team like UCF was this season, matchups from the AAC just aren’t moving the needle.

“For CBS, the SEC was just too top heavy this season,” Karp continued. “They had some bad matchups on the network. Alabama is still a draw, but there is a limit on the number of Alabama games the network can air, and Georgia-Florida or any Tennessee game just aren’t what they used to be. For NBC, Notre Dame fans just didn’t watch early in the season, expecting some sort of repeat of 2016’s debacle. But NBC saw improvement over the last three game telecasts. I’d say college football fans were winners this season. There are options galore on TV, and that doesn’t even include improvement on the streaming front. Networks like CBS and ESPN need to see improvement from some big-time programs like Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Nebraska and maybe even an Oregon. That would increase the availability of bigger games for those networks.”

In terms of which teams drew the most viewers, Alabama and Ohio State had four games that ranked in the top 15 among single-game viewership. Michigan and Auburn had three. Oklahoma and Georgia had two each. Clemson had none.

Here were the five CFB games this year that exceeded 10 million viewers:

1. Alabama-Auburn (CBS) Nov. 25: 13.657 million viewers.

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2. Georgia-Auburn (CBS) Dec. 2: 13.466 million viewers.

3. Ohio State-Wisconsin (Fox): Dec. 2: 12.918 million viewers.

4. Florida State-Alabama (ABC): Sept. 2: 12.335 million viewers.

5. Ohio State-Michigan (Fox): Nov. 25: 10.507 million.


1. CBS said its coverage of Army-Navy on Saturday drew the game’s highest rating (5.9) in 23 years and was up 5% over last year. The top markets were Philadelphia, Columbus, Jacksonville, Norfolk and Baltimore.

1a. Great rating for ESPN Saturday night with its fight between Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux. The fight portion averaged a 1.3 overnight rating, the second highest-rated fight on cable in 2017 behind Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn in July (2.4).

2. ESPN’s 2017 MLS Cup final drew a 0.7 metered market rating, down from last year when Big Fox aired the game, but up from ESPN’s last airing of the game in 2015.

MLS Cup ratings:

2017: 0.7 (overnight) on ESPN

2016: 0.8 final rating and 1.4 million viewers on Big FOX

2015: 0.4 on ESPN.

2014: 0.6 on ESPN

The top market was Seattle followed by Louisville (3.2), Columbus, OH (1.7), Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News (1.1), Raleigh-Durham (1.1), Atlanta (1.0), Indianapolis (1.0), Portland, Ore. (1.0), Austin (0.9), Birmingham (0.9), Memphis (0.9) and Philadelphia (0.9). Toronto is not one of the 56 U.S. metered markets.

3. Episode 149 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Mike Francesa, the dominant sports talk voice in the nation’s biggest market (New York City) including one half of arguably the most famous sports-talk show in history—The Mike and The Mad Dog Show. Francesa will leave his afternoon show on WFAN Radio on Dec. 15.

In the podcast Francesa discusses his longevity in New York City; the art of a great sports radio rant; how emotional he will be at the end of his show; his fractured relationship with ESPN; why sports radio is always provincial; where he stands on talking about politics or social issues and his public support of Donald Trump; how social media helped give him currency; why he loved former NBA Commissioner David Stern as a guest; whether he will listen to his replacements at the WFAN; what he is likely to do in the near term; his hopes of talking to Pat Riley again; why it is unlikely he and Chris Russo will partner on the future; his critics in New York City and much more.

To listen to the podcast in full, check it out on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.