While NFL viewership is just recovering after an early season dip, college football’s numbers held steady throughout election season. Network execs explain why

By Emily Kaplan
November 16, 2016

Perhaps panic over the NFL’s evaporating television audience was premature. On the first post-election Sunday, the league’s ratings surged thanks to two marquee matchups. According to NBC, Seahawks-Patriots drew the biggest Week 10 Sunday Night Football audience in five years. Meanwhile in Fox’s late-afternoon window, the Cowboys’ 35-30 win over the Steelers was the NFL’s highest-rated individual game this year. However, it’s indisputable that NFL viewership lagged over the season’s first half. Entering Week 9, industry experts peg total NFL consumption down about 14 percent.

In a memo sent from the NFL office in early October, the league admitted that “a confluence of events” was affecting ratings, blaming “unprecedented interest” in the presidential election as the largest culprit. The trend also raised a different question: Why did college football broadcasts not suffer the same drop?

Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire

First we must answer the question: Has college football viewership remained healthy?

“There’s certainly a perception that college football is having a very strong year,” says Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ Senior VP of Programming, Research, and Content Strategy. “I think something driving that perception is that the season got off to a great start.”

Week 1 of the college football season featured a dazzling spread: Wisconsin’s win over LSU with Lambeau Field as the backdrop, upstart Houston upsetting Oklahoma, and of course Texas over Notre Dame in a double-overtime thriller that ABC and ESPN celebrated as its most-watched opening weekend game ever. Across all networks, total viewing of college football in Week 1 was up 22 percent over the previous year, Mulvihill said.

By Week 3, total viewing was up 10 percent over 2105. In Week 6, it was up five percent. And now, according to Mulvihill, viewership of college football is down about one percent year over year.

In an email, ESPN released similar findings: To date, college football across all nationally-rated networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and FS1) is averaging 2,011,000 viewers per game (255 games), which is down 27,000 viewers per game from last season (one percent).

So why was college football able to stay flat while the NFL tumbled?

Aside from the election, Mulvihill points to another popular rationale for why NFL viewership had suffered: absence of stars. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had been powerful drivers of viewerships for more than a decade, and both were missing for the first four weeks. College football, by model, introduces us to new stars each year. In fact, in most cases it’s the longtime coaches (Dabo, Harbaugh, Miles, Saban, Urban) who attract cult followings.

There is something to be said about overall quality of play. College football games have simply been more exciting. According to Mulvihill, even as average total viewership is essentially flat, if you pull out the most-watched college football game each week it averages 10 percent higher viewership than the most-watched game of the same week the previous year.

Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s Senior Vice President of Global Research and Analytics, cites college football’s new postseason format (every game matters more) and more total college football teams and corresponding fan bases as reasons college football was better equipped to weather the election cycle.

Regional viewership is significant. The NFL’s ratings plunge mostly affected primetime packages that showed one select game to the entire country; there was a much smaller drop for ratings of regional games, such as the Fox and CBS early-afternoon slates.

“College football is the ultimate regionalized and localized sport,” Mulvihill says. “So if you believe in the idea that—even with many distractions, including the election—sports fans are still making time for the events of their greatest local interest, then it would make sense that college football would hold up a little better than pro football under that kind of circumstance.” For example, a Lions fan from Detroit will carve time for a 1 p.m. matchup against the Rams but might not feel compelled to stay in front of his television for the 8:30 Colts-Texans nightcap.

But what is the threshold? Among the many theories as to why NFL ratings dropped was oversaturation. The average fan just doesn’t want to hand over his or her entire Sunday, from an early London start to a late SNF finish, plus Monday and Thursday nights to the NFL anymore.

Earlier this month, as part of its new television deal, the Big Ten announced it would have a package of six televised Friday night games beginning next season. Mulvihill downplayed concerns over how that might affect viewing habits. “There has always been so much college football in the marketplace, I don’t worry about an oversaturation effect from adding a little bit more,” he says. The Fox executive explained how, through 10 weeks of college football, there had been 816 hours of programming—and about 300 to 400 more hours still to come. And apparently, there’s nothing keeping fans from tuning in.

• BIG LINEMAN HAS TO BE A BIG LOSER: Top O-line prospect lineman Zach Banner of USC is 6' 9" and once weighed close to 400 pounds. He lost the weight and is on a quest keep it off

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A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Lions quarterback Jake Rudock hyping former Michigan teammate Jake Butt.

“The biggest thing you need to know is that Jake Butt loves football. He just wants to go out there and play, and he wants to go out there to win. He runs very crisp routes, which I can say as a quarterback makes it a lot easier to throw to a target like that. He runs routes like a wide receiver. He’s always willing to block, too. I don’t know if I have a favorite play we ever had together—luckily we had a lot of them. I will say he always go really creative with his face paint every week. You should see him without a helmet on, it’s pretty intense.”

• THE RETURN OF THE TIGHT END: A tight end hasn’t been taken in the first round of the draft since 2014. However, a stacked 2017 class, featuring Michigan’s Jake Butt, is poised to break that trend

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East Carolina's Zay Jones.
Willie J. Allen Jr./AP

A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…

Isaiah (Zay) Jones, WR, East Carolina: Obviously take notice of his production. Everything you hear off the field is positive. Polished route-runner with exciting potential.

Jeremy Cutrer, CB, Middle Tennessee: Great length… believe he’s listed at 6'2" and has long arms. Wiry frame though. Willing to contribute in run support. Solid tackler.

Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee: Strong candidate for declaring early [Kamara is a 21-year-old junior]. Physical with second-level burst. Can be special as a returner and contribute in pass game.

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Actually, this is a genius coaching hire. I’m intrigued by Florida International tabbing former Miami and North Carolina coach Butch Davis to lead its program.

How about this stat, from Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman: In 10 seasons as a college head coach, Davis recruited 33 players who became first-round picks. Obviously many of those stars were Hurricanes: Edgerrin James, Andre Johnson, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Wayne among them. Davis’s last stint in college ended unceremoniously as the Tar Heels were embroiled in a scandal involving improper benefits and academic misconduct.

Let’s not forget Davis’s NFL accomplishments too: He coached the Cleveland Browns from 2001 to ’04. The 2002 team, which went 9-7, is the last Browns squad to reach the playoffs.

• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round.

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Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…

Buffalo at No. 14 Western Michigan (3:30 p.m.): The last time we checked in on Western Michigan in this column, we introduced you to stud receiver Corey Davis and marveled at the Broncos knocking off two Big Ten teams (Northwestern and Illinois, both on the road). Since then, P.J. Fleck’s squad has been rolling. At 10-0, the Broncos join Alabama as the country’s only unbeatens, and this week they’ll host ESPN’s Game Day on campus. Buffalo isn’t Western Michigan’s toughest opponent—the Bulls are 2-8 overall, 1-5 in the MAC—so expect an offensive exhibition from quarterback Zach Terrell (23 touchdowns, one interception) and Davis (62 catches, 1,029 yards, 14 touchdowns).

No. 20 Washington State at No. 12 Colorado (3:30 p.m.) Though quarterback Luke Falk’s stock is ascending, last week the junior downplayed rumors that he is set on declaring early for the NFL draft. Falk has two stellar targets in seniors Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, who rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Cougars’ all-time receptions list. Marks, with 295 grabs, owns the Pac 12’s all time mark. Wazzu is one of three Power Five teams still undefeated in conference play (Alabama and Oklahoma), but Colorado presents a huge test. The Buffaloes are overachievers, and potential party crashers after rolling off four straight wins. Their quarterback, Sefo Liufau, is a sleeper draft name to keep an eye on.

No. 9 Penn State at Rutgers (8 p.m.): Here’s where I’ll be on Saturday. For the first time this season I’m attending a game as a fan, cheering on my alma mater, Penn State, in my home state, New Jersey. O.K., so maybe the average fan might avoid this one, considering the Nittany Lions opened as 24-point favorites (We Are…. good again! Related: Rutgers is having a rough year.) However, it’s undeniable that Penn State will be one of the more fascinating stories over the next two weeks. Win out—with a little help from Ohio State—and Penn State has a legitimate shot at the Big Ten title and, dare I say it, a playoff berth. Yeah, I grabbed one of the final few seats on the James Franklin bandwagon. I suggest you reserve your spot soon. The Saquon Barkley hype train, meanwhile, has been sold out for months.

• LUKE FALK AND THE AIR RAID CONUNDRUM: The high-powered college Air Raid offense has produced few NFL success stories. The latest Mike Leach pupil, Luke Falk, has a chance to buck the trend

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Temple's Dion Dawkins
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior matchups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.

Temple OT Dion Dawkins vs. Tulane Tanzel Smart: Despite losing three seniors to the NFL draft last spring, coach Matt Rhule has led the Owls to another successful season in the American Athletic Conference. Dawkins (6' 5", 315 pounds) is a three-plus year starter who has quick feet and powerful hands. He has the potential to be a swing tackle or guard at the next level. Smart (6-foot, 300 pounds) is also a three-year starter and relies on his superior movement skills and effort to make plays. He has 56 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in what has been a very productive senior season. Although this is not a direct, face-to-face matchup, NFL scouts will be dialing this tape up throughout their draft prep work.

Best of the Rest:
Colorado CB Chidobe Awuzie vs. Washington State WR Gabe Marks
Chattanooga DE Keionta Davis vs. Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook vs. West Virginia CB Rasul Douglas
USC OT Zach Banner vs. UCLA OLB Takk McKinley

• IN SEARCH OF ‘THE NEXT CARSON WENTZ’: Combing the FCS ranks for the next NFL QB prospect, the search came across Brady Gustafson, a 6'7" passer from Montana who beat Wentz in his first career start

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Speaking of Penn State, a belated thank you to my friend Mark Pavlik, the Nittany Lions’ men’s volleyball coach. For most breakfasts over the past week (especially on tough mornings) I’ve enjoyed a warm, gooey slice of comfort: grilled sticky buns from Ye Olde College Diner in State College! (I’ve justified the indulgences by training for a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, convincing myself it somehow evens out.) Pavlik mailed me two boxes of the cinnamon rolls last month, and I have to say, they freeze and reheat exceptionally well. The rolls are a Penn State classic—in my opinion, the thing to get if you visit Happy Valley; Creamery ice cream is highly overrated. I am always grateful for Coach Pav. The men’s volleyball team was my first-ever beat as a freshman on the school paper, and he treated us like pros: We had weekly interviews in his office, which taught us valuable journalism lessons in access, interviewing and accountability.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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