College football ratings declined a bit this year. That should not surprise anyone.

A modest to moderate sports ratings decline is inevitable. The audience may still be substantial. But cable customers are cutting the cord by the hundreds of thousands. People under 20 don’t watch “linear” TV. College football is not well placed to handle that shift. It depends on the cable model for national promotion. While video games such as Madden and FIFA are a way to reach young fans, college football opted not to have one.

Season-specific factors played a role this year. Conference races were boring, top-heavy, and predictable. The one competitive race was the Pac-12, which competed itself right out of the playoff discussion. Of the six teams ESPN purported were in the playoff mix during the selection show, five – Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Clemson, Oklahoma – were ranked in the initial top seven by the AP. The shocker was Florida State falling off. That detracted from the season rather than adding to it.

The Big Ten contract was a boost for Fox, the only network that saw a ratings increase. It was a corresponding blow to ABC/ESPN. The latter was left trying to make college football’s equivalent of “fetch,” the ACC, happen. Schools such as Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas going into the toilet did not help CBS.

Perhaps the most critical reason college football ratings fell and will fall is that is the sport is not optimized for the present, much less the future. I would use a tired metaphor and say that college football moves like an ocean liner. But it’s an ocean liner operated by a consortium of squabbling captains who lock themselves out of the bridge. The lack of coordination is suboptimal.

Non-conference scheduling is brutal. It took work to get teams to schedule one live football game (though that paradigm may change given how the committee behaved this year). Even playing one tough opponent, teams still throw away 16-25 percent of potential regular-season television inventory to pad wins. That’s part of the reason why schools have trouble getting fans to show up on time or at all to games. More inter-conference scheduling agreements and adding a ninth conference game in the SEC/ACC could improve matters.

The four-team playoff helps the end of the regular season. Two of the top five viewership games in 2017 were the SEC and Big Ten title games, with playoff implications. But that’s also showing what college football is missing by not moving to six or eight teams. All five conference games would have playoff implications. In an eight-team format with home fields, college football would also add the best sports weekend of the year, in place of people pretending they look forward to Army-Navy every year.

Conferences also undercut each other with competing TV deals. The example to look toward is the NFL. The NFL negotiates its TV deals as a single entity and coordinates. Games are organized rationally on Sunday. Event games on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights bring in billions in additional revenue. College football is what would happen if each NFL division negotiated its own TV contract.

Two of the other top five viewership games were the major rivalries, Alabama-Auburn and Michigan-Ohio State. The fifth game was Alabama-Florida State, which drew more than 12 million viewers. It was a game between two top five teams, and it was also two top five teams playing with virtually no competition. The only other top 25 game that opening Saturday, Michigan-Florida, kicked off at 3:30 p.m. ET.

That scarcity was key. College football had bigger and better games during the 2017 season. The Michigan-Florida game rated as well as it did because it wasn’t dealing with 3-4 other games as Fox, NBC, ABC, and ESPN aired competing marquee night games. One shouldn’t have four screens airing separate games and still not be able to follow the Top 25 action.

College football could recreate that Alabama-Florida State game-level audience every week, with flex scheduling for later in the season. They could do a similar event game on Friday night, with teams more intriguing than Boston College playing.

There are many things college football could do to juice ratings and interest, such as more coordination and better scheduling. What college football decision makers will do is get caught up debating minor tweaks to their already terrible method of permitting teams to play for a national championship.

About Ty Duffy

Ty is a freelance writer/editor based outside Detroit. He's a Michigan Man. He enjoys dogs, whiskey, yoga, and composing pithy career summaries. Contact him at tyduffy@gmail.com.

  • BobLee Says

    “Success” (??) in college FB is currently measured by becoming “bowl eligible” i.e. winning 50% of your games; and qualifying for Christmas in Shreveport – The Whozit Bowl versus another 6-6 team ??? …. If I was The Power 5 Czar I would (1) require 9 Conference opponents… (2) allow only one out-of-Power5 OOC game… (3) move “bowl-eligible” to 7 Power5 Ws ….. for a start…

    • KnightXavi

      They should have no out-of-P5 OOC game. The way it’s structured, only a “Power 5” school can satisfactory win a national title. So, if only a “Power 5” program can “win” the National Championship, then the “Power 5” should only be playing each other.

      • BobLee Says

        Under “my plan” I would allow ONE OOC game but it must be from within the Group of Five (whatever that MAC, AAC, CUSA, MountWest group is called). Certainly none with Div II schools as currently permitted. I am willing to negotiate – 🙂

        • Charleston Man

          Nope. No quarter given to the AAC, MAC, CUSA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, OR INDEPENDENTS: SORRY NOTRE DAME, (Join the ACC like your basketball program did. You play 6 in the ACC as it is.) Join or never be eligible. That goes for BYU as well.
          AAC, MAC, CUSA, Mountain West, SunBelt can make their own National Championship.

      • Charleston Man

        They shouldn’t play ONE SINGLE GAME out of Power 5 and should play NO MORE than 10 games in regular season. Too many games and then have to play play offs. Alabama and Clemson both played 15 games last year. The 6 game rule for Bowl eligibility is crap as well. We used to have 10 bowl games, then it was 15, then 19, now we are up to 35 bowl games. Ridiculous. AND PLAY COLLEGE BOWL GAMES ON FRIGGIN SATURDAY. Some of us have jobs.

  • george202

    I sure hope we can see Alabama play Mercer again next year. That was a real nail biter.

  • Conundrum

    I saw that the Power 5 is actually the Power 6 with the AAC included. I agree that an 8 team playoff would be preferable. The 6 conference champions and 2 wild card selections.

  • Charleston Man

    You can’t compare College football Conferences with the NFL. The schools in each conference are mostly STATE supported schools. They are members of conferences. The Schools do not “belong” to conferences, they are MEMBERS. The Conferences do not BELONG to the NCAA, they simply agree to abide by the rules for standardization of game rules and competitive scholarships. They will NEVER allow the NCAA to negotiate contracts. If they did, all we would see is Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and USC televised games. The very fact that some schools get higher ratings drives the schools to get their own contracts. Texas with the longhorn network, Notre Dame with the NBC contract. You think for ONE SECOND that a big school would let that go to the NCAA? LMAO. Will never happen.

  • Dale Moog

    The way you end this is the NCAA pulls out of FBS football by disinviteing all of the FBS conferences, then you make the conferences go alone. We will see then how corrupt the system really is. I mean the Bowl system and the TV deals are so one sided toward the conferences.

  • Walt_Gekko

    What is needed is a 32-team playoff. That would make it so every school with even a remote chance of winning it all gets a chance even if it has to win two road games.

    The first two rounds can be “December Madness” where a lower seed go into a higher seed and beats them. It also in a year like this would have likely had Ohio State playing Alabama in one of the New Years Day bowls.

  • Caleb Sayre

    Im not sure I understand your comment about College Football needs Flex scheduling… They pretty much have Flex Scheduling the entire season (with the exception of the first 3 weeks or so)

  • Matt

    FS1 also saw ratings go up this year.

  • Gilwhooley ✓Trump ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    The whole article can be summed up in one word..Oversaturated