college football playoff ratings

After much hand-wringing over the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve, college football fans got what they wanted this year: the games’ return New Year’s Day. And based on ESPN’s ratings for Monday’s two semifinals, it seems fans were quite happy about the change.

According to ESPN, the Rose Bowl between Georgia and Oklahoma drew a 14.8 overnight rating, up 29 percent from last year’s first semifinal, while the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Clemson pulled a 12.5 overnight rating, up 19 percent from last year’s second semifinal. Together, the games averaged a 13.9 overnight, up 26 percent from last year and 42 percent from the 2015 playoff.

The final viewership numbers released by ESPN were even stronger – the Rose Bowl averaged 26.83 million viewers between ESPN and ESPN2, good for the fifth-most watched cable program ever. It was up 39% from last year’s game, and a whopping 71% from 2015. The Sugar Bowl finished with an average of 21.12 million viewers on ESPN and ESPN2, up 10% from last year and 13% from 2015.

Rather than the teams involved or the entertainment value of the games, the schedule seems to have been the most important factor in that surge in ratings. In each of the previous two years, the CFP semifinals aired on New Year’s Eve, when much of America is occupied with champagne-soaked countdowns. This year’s games aired on New Year’s Day, a more traditional date for college football, and were therefore destined for better ratings regardless of fan interest or quality of games. The fact that, as it turned out, Georgia and Oklahoma produced a double-overtime classic was a welcome bonus.

The New Year’s Eve vs. New Year’s Day conundrum has haunted ESPN and the College Football Playoff for several years now. The CFP originally promised to “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve,” but soon abandoned that initiative amid poor ratings and pressure from ESPN. In 2016, the CFP announced it would play its semifinals on December 31 only when that night falls on a weekend, ensuring we won’t see another New Year’s Eve semifinal until 2021-22, with the games over the next three years airing on December 29, December 28, and January 1, respectively.

If there was any doubt that the CFP’s decision to avoid New Year’s Eve was indeed the right one, ESPN’s big ratings Monday night seem to eliminate it.


About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports,, and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

  • Deon Hamner

    So no mention of Bama and Clemson starting after 9pm when 85% of folks are returning to work the next day and couldn’t stay up to watch this game? If you think Dec 28 is going to be that much better than 31st because it’s a weekend is a big mistake…

    • Walt_Gekko

      That’s because the Rose Bowl Committee insists on a 5:00 PM ET/2:00 PM local time start for their game. The two times the Rose Bowl (when it was the national title game the BCS format) was not in its traditional slot many people (especially those over 65) were extremely upset about that. If the Rose Bowl Committee were not so stubborn about it and allowed the game to start at 4:30 PM local time (7:30 PM ET with the Sugar Bowl moved up to 3:00 PM ET), it would avoid that situation.

      • Mike

        But Santa Anita has almost always gone up against the Rose Bowl game and this year it actually did quite well, considering many eastern tracks were shut down because of the weather and people wanted to speak with their dollars.

        • Walt_Gekko

          LOL and irrelevant to this.

          The point is, the Rose Bowl in years where it’s a CFP semi should swap spots with the Sugar Bowl and both should move up (Sugar Bowl to say 3:30 PM ET instead of 3:00, Rose Bowl to 7:30 or 8:00 PM ET with the Peach Bowl at 11:00 AM ET).

  • Walt_Gekko

    The problem the CFB Playoff Committee has is this:

    Say you had one playoff game each on January 2-3 (in years when the Rose and Sugar Bows are not playoff games). That makes the Championship game at least January 10 or 11, and that is after the spring semester starts at a number of Universities where they often can’t move that back to accommodate football because in some instances, finals and graduation day are scheduled YEARS in advance and those days can’t be changed very easily because doing so often has a ripple effect on where the Universities are located (especially if such cities need ALL of the hotel space needed for graduation day for other events after that). Some schools could have unfair advantages if the playoff were moved back.

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