Heading into Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship, expectations for ESPN’s ratings were low. Analysts figured that a matchup of two SEC schools that stand less than 300 miles from each other would have limited appeal outside the southeast, driving down the game’s viewership.
Then Alabama and Georgia delivered a tense overtime classic, and America happily tuned in. According to ESPN, the game drew a 16.7 overnight rating across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, up 9 percent from last year’s title game, in which Clemson defeated Alabama in a similarly tight thriller, and up 5 percent from the January 2016 championship (also between Clemson and Alabama). The game ranks as ESPN’s second highest rated event on record, behind only the 2015 Ohio State-Oregon title match.
Skepticism over prospective Alabama-Georgia ratings owed largely to underwhelming viewership on the last all-SEC title game, the January 2012 Alabama-LSU matchup in the BCS National Championship, but it’s beginning to seem as if the College Football Playoff is a different animal. Per ESPN, three of the four highest rated bowl games in network history have been CFP National Championships, and seven of the top 10 have been either CFP title games or semifinals. Four years in, the playoff format seems to be driving ratings.
And although recent championship games, including Monday’s, benefit slightly from ESPN’s MegaCast production, which spreads feeds across several networks, the vast majority of viewers still watch on the primary feed. For Monday night’s game, the main ESPN network drew a 16.0 overnight, which would rank among ESPN highest rated games even disregarding ESPN2 and ESPNU viewers.
The takeaway here is pretty simple. As ESPN executive Burke Magnus put it on Twitter, “People watch good games… period.”