Airing the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Years Eve was a huge flop.
The public has spoken and the hubristic bunch running the College Football Playoff should pay close attention even though you know they won’t: Airing the College Football Flayoff semifinals on New Years Eve was a flop. Not just a regular flop. We’re talking New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Magic Johnson hosting late night, taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan levels of flopdom.
ESPN drew 15,640,000 viewers for its Orange Bowl matchup featuring Clemson’s 37–17 victory over Oklahoma, down 45% in viewership when compared to last year’s first Playoff semifinal (Oregon-Florida State). The primetime matchup featuring Alabama’s 38–0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl drew 18,552,000 viewers, a drop of 34% from last year’s equivalent (Ohio State-Alabama). If you are looking for a sports television parallel in modern times, head to the year after Michael Jordan left the NBA the second time. The 1998 NBA Finals (Bulls-Jazz) averaged 29 million viewers. The following year, the Spurs-Knicks five-game series drew a shade over 16 million. (Worth noting is 1999 was a lockout year, with only a 50-game regular season.) Last year’s College Football Playoff semifinals averaged a shade over 28 million for both games. It’s not easy to lose more than 12 million viewers for a sports broadcast from the previous year but that is exactly what the CFP did.
You can scold or mock ESPN for insulting your intelligence with its Jimmy Kimmel-led marketing campaign, and some brutal synergistic efforts such as this nonsense but the onus isn’t on the network, at least not this year. As SI.com 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 (which includes seven more New Years Eve dates for the playoffs) 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: Saturday, Jan. 2.
But College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock would not budge–you can’t spell hubris without the ‘H’ in Hancock–and there appears to be no immediate plans to change course based on what Hancock told the Associated Press on Saturday. “It’s too soon to know how much was due to the lopsided games or how much what I think we all thought would be an inevitable decline from the excitement of the first year or the semifinals on New Year’s Eve,” he said. “I suspect it’s a combination of those three, but I don’t have any idea what the weighting is. ESPN is studying the numbers and we’ll learn a lot more in the next few months.”
I’m happy to save the TV research wonks some time: You will never change the paradigm of New Years Eve when it comes to how Americans celebrate. The arrogance of Hancock and his Power Five conference commissioner cronies knows no bounds as they are preventing many Americans from watching one of the signature sporting events of the year.
Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions and one of the network’s point people on the deal with the CFP, told SI.com on Saturday there are no immediate plans to ask the CFP to reconsider the New Years Eve playoff plan. He said he did speak with Hancock after the ratings came out but preferred to keep that conversation private. Ben-Hanan said he learned of the viewership numbers on Friday morning when he and other ESPN execs received an email from the company’s research department.
“Watching the games unfold live, certainly we had an expectation because the games were not competitive late that it would hurt us,” Ben-Hanan said. “I would say I was not surprised by the numbers when I saw them. We knew they would be down and certainly hoped they would not be as down as they turned out to be. [Michigan State] Being down 38-0 and competing against New Years Eve programming, that was not good luck from a TV ratings perspective.”
Don’t kill Ben-Hanan here. ESPN likely has no contractual provisions to rectify this disaster. Hancock, a sports political operative of the highest order, and his crew ultimately have the final decision on the date of the semifinals. They are the rights owner of the property; ESPN is merely a rights holder. ESPN’s only hope is to prod Hancock and his suits into acting with less self-interest. (Good luck, son.) Ben-Hanan said ESPN officials felt better about the overall bowl numbers after the overnights came in on all the New Years Eve Six bowls. Those bowls (Peach Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl Classic, Fiesta Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl) averaged a 7.1 overnight rating, with four of the six games experiencing increased ratings. The 7.1 overnight rating is down 13 percent from last season’s 8.2. “Of course you always want to be up but down 13 percent is a little bit different than after we were at the semifinals when we were staring at 30 percent-plus [down],” Ben-Hanan said.
As a network executive talking to the media, Ben-Hanan needs to stay positive. So I’ll be the one to mention here that the Rose Bowl's 7.9 overnight was its lowest on record (dating back to 1983). The previous low was 9.4 in 2013.
“If they wanted to have a conversation about changing dates, that is something we would of course look at and talk about with them but ultimately, without a doubt, it is in their control,” Ben-Hanan said. “But we know what we acquired and it was a completely eyes-wide-open transaction. It’s not like we bought the rights to these games and then the dates magically changed. We knew what we were buying, we know what the day the CFB wanted to try to establish, and we committed to them that we would do everything we could to assist them in it. We are all invested in this for the long haul and CFP is too. We have always said that this is a long term play for us and we were not going to worry about one year.”
So why isn’t ESPN as worried as perhaps it should be? Immediacy. The next New Years Eve (Dec. 31, 2016) falls on a Saturday, which ESPN and CFP executives believe (correctly) will alleviate some of the issues that existed this year, particularly losing viewers from the early semifinal due to work. After that, the College Football Playoff semifinals will be played on New Years Day, 2018. That date is a Monday. The games will take place at the Rose and Sugar Bowls.
“All the good dynamics of having the semifinals on New Years Day that we had in Year One will be there,” Ben-Hanan said. “Years 3 and 4 of this deal have different kind of challenges but related to the specific question of where the semifinals fall, there are less of those concerns regarding where the semifinals fall.”
The next time the College Football Playoff will occur on a New Years Eve workday is Dec. 31, 2018, which is Year Five of ESPN’s deal with CFP. That date is a Monday, which means 2016’s issues will come back into the fold. (ESPN and the CFP are no doubt hoping that many people will take that day off given a national holiday comes the following day.)
The predicted increased ratings from Year 3 and 4 will change the narrative only briefly until the numbers sink again for Year 5 and beyond. But this isn’t just about ratings. Holding a primetime playoff game on New Years Eve is arguably the most viewer-unfriendly option in all sports for a major property. Given Hancock’s job is to bring his playoffs to the biggest audience, most CEOs who lost 40 percent of their customers would be out the door faster than Usain Bolt. As my colleague Pete Thamel wrote last week, the semifinals can’t be held on its logical place, New Year's Day, because those time slots are, until 2026, already allotted to the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. “If there is one thing we've learned over the years about the conference commissioners who run college football, it's that they care little about the greater good of the game if it means losing dollars from their own wallets,” Thamel wrote.
Matchups often dictate ratings in college football. Programs with great tradition and large fan bases such as Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame etc., always draw well, so it’s possible future semis won’t tank as much as this year’s did. But the idea that the barons of college football will be changing the paradigm on New Years Eve is an arrogant joke, and you should be ticked off at the greed as Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel points out here.
Sure, there were some positives for ESPN: 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. The digital numbers were aided by people watching at work and those numbers will increase every year as viewers continue to watch on alternate devices.
But ESPN officials are not fools, and the numbers from the semifinals had to spook them, as well as the advertisers who bought in for the season off last year’s numbers. No one expected that steep a drop and while we admire the professional Ron Ziegler’s attempting to sell the soap, the idea is a bust and worse, an insult to college football fans. You’re getting screwed.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. The top 10 rated TV markets for Cotton Bowl (Alabama-Michigan State): 1. Birmingham (48.1), Greenville (21.3), Knoxville (21.2), Nashville (21.1), Atlanta (20.2), Detroit (20.0), Columbus (19.7), Jacksonville (15.9), Memphis (15.9), and New Orleans (15.7).
1a. The top 10 rated TV markets for Orange Bowl (Clemson-Oklahoma): Birmingham (35.6), Greenville (29.6), Oklahoma City (29.4) Tulsa (27.9), Knoxville (18.5), Atlanta (17.8), Columbus (17.6), Nashville (15.8), New Orleans (14.4), and Charlotte (14.2).
1b.The top 10 TV markets for all the New Years Eve Six Bowls: 1. Birmingham (23.6 average rating for the six games); 2. Columbus (17.3); 3. Tulsa (14.1). 4. Oklahoma City (14.0); 5. Greenville (13.8); 6. Dayton (12.7); 7. Cleveland (12.3); 8. Knoxville and Nashville (12.2); 10. New Orleans (12.1).
1c. The ESPN statement from its playoffs and New Years Six bowls press release: "The College Football Playoff is a long-term, multi-platform play for us,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “With that said, there are many variables that impact ratings results including what happens on the field and the numbers this year were obviously impacted by the unbalanced scores of these games. Still, four of the New Year's Six bowls posted double-digit ratings increases and we saw near historic successes for streaming the games on WatchESPN across the two days. College football is strong, vibrant and growing and we look forward to the National Championship game on January 11."
1d. The Texans’ 30-6 win over the Jaguars on Sunday marked the sixth straight season that the team that appeared on HBO’s Hard Knocks either matched or exceeded the previous year’s record. (Houston finished the regular season at 9-7, matching last year’s record). Four of the last six teams to appear on Hard Knocks have also won their division.
1e. ESPN’s 17 Monday Night Football telecasts in 2015 averaged 12.898 million viewers, down from 13.349 million in 2014 and 13.679 million viewers in 2013. The broadcast did win its night all 16 weeks of the 2015 season among all key male demos and adults 18-34 and 18-49.
1f. The top local markets for the MNF season (in order): Las Vegas, New Orleans, Denver, San Diego, Norfolk, Va., West Palm Beach, Richmond, Seattle, Dayton, and Phoenix.
1g. The final Monday Night Football broadcast of 2015, Broncos-Bengals, drew 15.806 million viewers, the most-viewed MNF telecast of the season.
1h. CBS said that the 16-game Thursday Night Football schedule on CBS and NFL Network (and over-the air stations) averaged 13 million viewers, up six percent compared to 12.3 million in 2014.
The games that aired on CBS during Weeks 2-8, & 14 were the most-watched program on television in primetime for that night across all networks, and all six primetime games on NFL Network and over-the-air stations (Weeks 9-16) were the highest-rated and most-watched program on cable television for each of the Thursday nights they aired.
1h. CBS NFL analyst Amy Trask on the Redskins’ turnaround: “This is the 12th time in the last 13 years that a team has gone from the bottom of its division to winning its division. This year, it's Washington. And I think the biggest single reason for Washington's turnaround and its success is the hiring of Scot McCloughan. For the first time in many, many years, Washington has, in-house, a talented football executive, who can spot talent and manage a roster.”
2. Last week longtime sports reporter Colleen Dominguez wrote a first-person piece for the San Diego Union-Tribune on why she filed suit in federal court earlier this month alleging she’d been the victim of discrimination by her employer, Fox Sports. That piece is here.
Given the many issues arising from this suit beyond Dominguez, I asked Michael McCann, a legal analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated and SI.com as well as the founding Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute (SELI) at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, to offer his analysis of what readers and viewers should be paying attention to regarding the suit. His words are below. (Note: Fox Sports declined comment to SI last week when asked about Dominguez’s suit.)
There are many lawful reasons for a television network to assign less work to one its on-air personalities. Gender and age usually aren’t among them.
According to Fox Sports 1 broadcaster Colleen Dominguez, the network has repeatedly denied her assignments due to the fact that she is a woman and, at age 55, older than many sports broadcasters. Last month, Dominguez sued FS1 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for alleged violations of federal age and discrimination laws. She asserts that because of her appearance as a 55-year-old woman, the network has effectively demoted her from a regular on-air personality to someone who is rarely seen by viewers. She seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Dominguez, who remains under contract with FS1, paints a damning account of her time with the network. After signing an employment contract with FS1 in March 2014 to become a “key personality,” Dominguez insists that she immediately excelled. According to Dominguez’s recollection, she adeptly responded to her first FS1 assignment, which was to cover the 2014 NBA Playoffs. During those playoffs, Dominguez says she brought to FS1 (which launched in 2013) the network’s first interviews with Stephen Curry, DeAndre Jordan and Paul George. She also notes that she interviewed Floyd Mayweather Jr., Tiger Woods and Dez Bryant and contends that she offered to FS1 interview opportunities with Madison Bumgarner and Rory McElroy.
Despite Dominguez’s apparent successes, FS1, in Dominguez’s words, relegated her to the bench, thereby damaging her career. She contends that FS1 inexplicably took her off coverage of the 2014 NFL Playoffs and the 2015 NBA All-Star game, moves she found particularly perplexing given her contacts in those leagues and given her understanding that she would receive marquee assignments. She argues that her demotion reflects blatant sexism and ageism.
Dominguez appears to have some evidence to support her claim. For instance, she contends that a “longtime Fox producer” sent her a text saying, “[Y]ou haven’t done anything wrong at all. Just because 5 men at a company want to be gratified by a 24 year old woman doesn’t make you bad at your job.” She also insists that management instructed a Fox producer to “cut video of Dominguez’s face and body for a management meeting and that this request has never been made for any other employee.”
U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew has been assigned to preside over Dominguez v. FS1. FSI must answer Dominguez’s complaint by Jan. 22. In its answer, expect FS1 to deny the allegations. As the litigation progresses, FS1 will argue that reasonable factors, rather than age and gender, fully explain how FS1 has utilized Dominguez.
FSI will likely offer specific points to bolster its defense. For instance, expect FS1 to stress that Dominguez’s age of 55 is almost the same as when the network hired her in 2014 as a 53-year-old—if Dominguez’s mid-50s age troubled FS1, the network presumably would not have hired her. FS1 will also highlight that Dominguez has no contractual guarantee to a specific amount of airtime or to specific assignments.
FSI might also offer performance reviews that critique Dominguez’s work product. Employers often cite performance reviews when sued for employee discrimination. The more those reviews employ objective criteria—rather than subjective opinion about non-measurable points—the more courts treat those reviews as authoritative. Any criticism of Dominguez must not be linked to her age or gender. Also expect FS1 to assert the network’s workplace discrimination policies were fully implemented in regards to Dominguez. Lastly, FS1 might contend that Dominguez failed to take advantage of FS1’s internal measures to address workplace disputes (Dominguez, however, claims that she sought and received a meeting with Fox president Eric Shanks, whom Dominguez recalls as pledging to look into her lack of airtime but without consequence).
With Dominguez and FS1 set to battle, it’s worth noting the most likely outcome of this lawsuit: a settlement. Such a settlement would entail FS1 releasing Dominguez from her contract and paying her money in exchange for Dominguez dropping her lawsuit and signing a non-disparagement agreement.
Both sides have good reasons to end the litigation sooner rather than later. As Dominguez acknowledges in her recent San Diego Tribune op-ed, some might fear that she is “killing” her career by suing FS1. Networks, like most employers, are often hesitant to hire someone who is—fairly or unfairly—regarded as litigious. Dominguez also wants to continue what has been a very successful broadcasting career, with stops at NBC Sports and ESPN. A lengthy and ongoing lawsuit against FS1 would probably delay her move to another network.
A settlement would also make sense for FS1, which may view the prospect of pretrial discovery as worrisome. If Dominguez possesses texts and e-mails that would embarrass Fox executives or—worse—portray those executives as sexist or ageist, negotiating a settlement with Dominguez would be particularly sensible. Similarly worrisome for FS1, if Dominguez’s case advances to pretrial discovery, Fox executives, producers and broadcasters would be called to provide sworn testimony about sensitive topics. As Richard Deitsch explored in 2014, Fox Sports has already attracted criticism for removing a then-53-year-old Pam Oliver from the network’s No. 1 NFL team in 2014. Fox does not want a confined battle with Dominguez to morph into a broader fight over how the network employs female broadcasters over the age of 50.
3. Episode No. 35 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features Fox Sports college football and college basketball play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, one of the most popular broadcasters among fans for his word play and enthusiasm. Johnson is calling a part-time schedule this season for the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s also previously worked for CBS and famously called many great moments at the NCAA tournament.
In this episode, Johnson discusses his preparation for calling different sports, how much he misses calling the NCAA tournament, his year-long journey calling international soccer and ultimately walking away from it, working with a variety of analysts over the years from Bill Raftery to Joel Klatt, why he'd love to call a game with Al Michaels and Marv Albert–and no analysts; how he came up with some of his well known expressions including “I’m Al Harrington–and I get buckets!”; his broadcasting start at Howard University; his admiration for longtime Pistons broadcaster George Blaha, how fans interact with him, the advice he'd give to young broadcasters and much more.
At the 39-minute mark, Johnson explains how he brokered peace between a feuding Bill Simmons and Isiah Thomas a couple of years ago. Johnson had long been close with Thomas and respected Simmons’ work. While all were in Las Vegas for summer league play, Johnson was lounging at a hotel pool in Las Vegas, where most people were topless and most of the NBA officials and media were hanging out. When Thomas told Johnson that he and Simmons had "beef," Johnson said he walked Thomas over to Simmons. Said Johnson: "I said, ‘Bill, this is Isiah. Isiah, this is Bill. You guys work it out.’ And I left and went back my margarita and making sure everything at the pool was cool.”
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
Sports pieces of note:
•“As the only African-American covering the Cavaliers on a full-time basis, I felt an obligation to dive into LeBron James' handling of the Tamir Rice case.” A must-read piece from Cleveland.com’s Chris Haynes
•Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel on why the College Football Playoffs aired on New Year’s Eve
•Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins on Phil Jackson, Pat Summitt, Mary Karr and a special triangular connection
•Battle Creek Enquirer (Mich.) sports writer Dillion Davis on losing his mother
•The Washington Post’s Will Hobson and Steven Rich on college athletic departments getting fat in an era of escalating student costs
•The Toronto Star sports writer Bruce Arthur on Canada losing at the World Junior hockey championships
•His backyard ice rink honors a stepdaughter’s memory. Now county inspectors may close it. From The Washington Post
Non-sports pieces of note:
•Writer Walter Pincus’s farewell to The Washington Post
•The New Yorker on a woman’s battle to end stoning and juvenile execution in Iran
•Via New York Times Magazine: The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery
•Jezebel’s Emma Carmichael, on surviving
• Ian Urbina’s “The Outlaw Ocean” series for the New York Times continues with a piece on the "repo men" of the sea
•The NYT followed around six New Yorkers age 85 and over. The results were fascinating.
•The Economist on the political and economic disaster facing Brazil.
•From The NYT: Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work
5. Writer Jessica Luther put together a high quality list of sports writing by women in 2015
5b. Golf Channel and NBC Sports analyst Mark Rolfing will return to television this week at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua following cancer surgery and treatment. “I have experienced a minor miracle, it appears, and we got the tumor out, and I went through six weeks of radiation down at MD Anderson [in Houston],” Rolfing said. “They worked very hard on it. I go back for all the final tests at the end of January. But the doctors are really optimistic and I am going to be back in the saddle starting next week. I can't wait.”
5c. The 2015 Sports Media Awards from the folks at TorontoSportsMedia.com
5d: Book it: This will go down as one of the worst political tweets of 2016: