clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The College Football Playoff's response to its terrible TV ratings was sadly predictable

Moving the Playoff to New Year's Eve was a television ratings disaster. Don't expect an immediate move to fix the problem.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Update: Playoff exec Bill Hancock has now commented, and it's basically what we expected below.

Last year's inaugural College Football Playoff had roughly everything its organizers and fans could've hoped for: entertaining games (even a lopsided Rose Bowl featured the end of a dominant Florida State team hated by casual fans), compelling players (the last two Heisman winners and plenty of star power across the board) and three of the sport's blue bloods (Alabama, FSU and the eventual national champions, Ohio State).

Add to that both semifinals taking place on New Year's Day, and the results spoke for themselves: an average of 28.2 million viewers tuned in to the two semifinals.

The Playoff brass and fans alike knew the second edition in a 12-year arrangement would be a lot different. This year was the first Playoff on New Year's Eve, something that'll happen two out of every three years under the current bowl rotation, which guarantees the Rose and Sugar New Year's Day, whether they're Playoff games that year or not.

This struck the football-consuming public as brash. With Jan. 2, a Saturday, wide open and a traditional day for college football, forcing the general public to squeeze seven-plus hours of football in with New Year's Eve festivities was asking a bit much.

ESPN, the Playoff's broadcast partner, saw the same potential pitfalls and tried to talk Playoff executives out of the proposal. After that went nowhere, ESPN tried to cover with product placement in places like soap operas or Disney Jr. Something, anything to get non-football hardcores to tune in.


Get one roundup of college football stories, rumors, game breakdowns, and Jim Harbaugh oddity in your inbox every morning.

Then the results were exactly what you expected.

The Cotton and Orange semifinals were bad. Alabama destroyed Michigan State and Clemson pulled away from Oklahoma before many people were home from work.

The ratings were worse.

With TV viewership down as much as 45 percent in the game that took place when a lot of people were still wrapping up their last few hours at work before a holiday, Playoff executive director Bill Hancock (the former BCS' playoff critic) didn't comment on the ratings numbers that looked like an unmitigated disaster.

Choosing to wait until after the completion of the New Year's Six, the bundle of games that also includes the Peach (also New Year's Eve) and New Year's Day's Fiesta, Rose and Sugar, Hancock told the Associated Press, "It's like asking a coach to talk about a whole game at halftime."

Those games would ultimately be decided by an average 26-point margin of victory.

So, Hancock's now on the clock. With a bevy of blowouts, the crown jewel of the bowl system, the Rose Bowl, featuring smaller-audience television teams in Stanford and Iowa, and Notre Dame-Ohio State never all that close, it's possible the total television viewing numbers will prove even worse than the Playoff's fears.

So what kind of PR double talk can we expect to hear from Hancock? Let's predict.

"New traditions are hard and take time."

New things rarely take overnight. But last year's New Year's Day Playoff games felt right. Unless you're a fan of Clemson or Alabama, probably nothing about this year's setup will leave you reflecting fondly.

With the Playoff scheduled to be on New Year's Day only once over the next four years (the Fiesta and Peach still get a turn before it's back to the Sugar and Rose), the growing pains are going to be frequent and jarring.

"Take TV ratings on a day like New Year's Eve with a grain of salt."

There's some truth to this. It's difficult to count eyeballs on a day like New Year's Eve, when so many televisions are serving a larger than normal number of viewers. But it'd take some seriously creative accounting to spin a 34-45 percent drop in TV eyeballs as anything other than a net negative.

"Streaming numbers were at record highs."

Given how many people were either still stuck at work or out for their ordinary New Year's Eve festivities, and with the saturation of smart phones and services like WatchESPN, of course the streaming numbers would be superficially inflated. Even in a world that's seeing more movement away from traditional cable to streaming services, the rapid growth being touted this year wouldn't have been possible without a major holiday keeping so many would-be viewers out of pocket.

"We're as confident as ever about the future of this new tradition."

It wouldn't be a PR rebuttal without false bravado. Unless the New Year's Eve's arrangement hurts ESPN's ad sales or bowl attendance, the incentive for the conference's to agree to change is minimal.

It's unlikely the hit, even with the bad PR of losing over a third of your TV audience, will impact the Playoff's partners in such a way to enact necessary immediate tweaks. Like the BCS before it, the Playoff seems primed to guess-and-check as it goes. Like the BCS, it'll need repeated embarrassment before it actually does anything.

* * *

SB Nation presents: All 40 college football bowl games, in one song