ESPN says the College Football Playoff National Championship between Alabama and Georgia drew a 16.7 overnight rating. That’s a 9-percent jump from last year’s title game between Alabama and Clemson, which posted a 16.0.
Taking a wider view, the network reports an 18-percent jump over last year in ratings for the entirety of the three-game Playoff. Both semifinal games this year did better than the ones last season, too, as part of a consistent jump in viewership.
It’s impossible to know exactly why ratings got better this year, but we can make two educated guesses about the factors at work.
1. There weren’t semifinal games on New Year’s Eve.
The Playoff had the semis on Dec. 31 in both 2015 and 2016. The people who run the Playoff thought they could convince the masses to interrupt New Year’s Eve parties and watch college football. They wanted to make NYE a college football night, just like New Year’s Day always has been, and like the NBA owns Christmas Day.
“We really do think we’re going to change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve,” Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said before the first NYE semis. (Hancock is notorious for having, let’s say, an evolving view of postseason issues over time.)
The semifinal ratings plummeted for the 2015 season, the first year of NYE semis after they were held on New Year’s Day the season before. They inched back up on New Year’s Day 2016, but the Playoff decided to hold fewer New Year’s Eve semis, anyway.
2. The bowls and teams playing in them were really good.
The two semis this year were the Rose and Sugar Bowls, probably the two most prestigious bowls when all else is equal. Those games are fixtures around New Year’s, and watching them is traditional in some households.
The Playoff also included a bunch of legacy programs with huge, football-mad fanbases. That’s not really abnormal, though I’d bet it helped this year that there weren’t any West Coast teams in the event. (We can debate to what extent “East Coast bias” is a thing in the media, but it’s certainly true that people on the Eastern half of the country aren’t as broadly familiar with teams like Washington as, say, Georgia.)
Two of the three Playoff games this year were classics: the title game and the Rose Bowl semi between UGA and Oklahoma. That helps ratings. So might little things like having a Kendrick Lamar halftime show or a presidential visit by Donald Trump.
At any rate, the ratings are a big deal for ESPN.
When you pay $470 million a year to broadcast something, it’s best that people watch.