The BYU-Coastal Carolina Mormons vs Mullets t-shirts.

Much of the discussion with college football ratings is about games airing on the biggest channels, whether that’s ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC or even the main ESPN network. But there are sometimes some interesting notes about what’s going on further down the ESPN network chain, and an ESPN press release Wednesday illustrates that. The #8 BYU-#14 Coastal Carolina (AP rankings; they were #13 and #18 in the CFP rankings) game ESPNU aired Saturday  pulled in that channel’s best numbers since 2015, and its fifth-best numbers ever.

BYU-Coastal Carolina only came together at the last minute after planned Coastal Carolina opponent Liberty canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. And that led to some remarkable stories, including one about BYU’s equipment truck drivers. The matchup also led to a lot of discussion as a battle of unbeaten teams overlooked by the CFP committee, and it had plenty of storylines from the game itself (including “Mormons vs. Mullets” t-shirts and an on-field fight). And that game saw quite the last-second finish (Coastal Carolina won 22-17), which probably helped the audience further. Here’s more on those viewership numbers from ESPN’s release, by Amanda Brooks:

Saturday’s ESPNU presentation of BYU-Coastal Carolina was one for the ages, and not just because of the stellar play on the field or the storylines surrounding the last-minute matchup. The 5:30 p.m. ET showdown between the ranked Cougars and Chanticleers delivered a total live audience of 1,425,000 viewers across all TV and digital platforms, including ESPNU, ESPN2 bonus coverage and streaming. On ESPNU, the game averaged 1,212,000 viewers, the most-viewed game on ESPNU since 2015 (Western Kentucky vs. LSU) and the fifth-most viewed on ESPNU all time.

The live streaming audience contributed an average minute audience of 103,000 viewers, second best for any game on ESPN networks in Week 14. The audience peaked with 2,115,000 at 8:50 p.m., when Coastal Carolina stopped BYU’s goal line drive in the closing seconds of the game. The Cougars-Chanticleers matchups also ranked as the top college football video clip in Week 14 across ESPN’s digital platforms with 1.4 million video starts.

Yes, 1.212 million viewers in and of itself (for ESPNU viewership alone) isn’t a huge number, and even the 1.425 million average including streaming and ESPN2 bonus coverage isn’t that high in a vacuum. For one point of comparison, CBS’ coverage of Alabama-LSU Saturday afternoon averaged 4.22 million viewers. That was the lowest number in that series since 2006, and a 76 percent plummet from last year’s much-hyped clash (when those teams were #2 and #1 respectively in the AP poll heading into the game).

But a Power 5 game on broadcast TV is a rather different animal than a game between non-Power 5 schools on ESPNU. The main ESPN network was estimated to have around 80 million TV homes earlier this year, and ESPNU has even less. The last full Nielsen coverage estimates we saw, in April 2019, had ESPNU with 60.4 million homes versus 84.7 million for ESPN. With ESPN dropping since then, it seems likely that ESPNU has dropped off as well. And as for broadcast, Nielsen currently estimates 121 million U.S. TV homes, with 96.2 percent of those able to receive over-the-air TV by some means.

That means there are potentially 116.4 million people able to watch games on broadcast TV, and while that doesn’t factor in carriage disputes that block particular channels for points of time, there is a much bigger potential audience for anything on broadcast. There’s even a much bigger potential audience for anything on ESPN or ESPN2. So it’s more notable to see how ESPNU numbers compare to other games on ESPNU, and it’s certainly significant that they drew their best single-game audience since 2015 and their fifth-best single-game audience ever.

And really, this year has been a great advertisement for why ESPN has these extra channels. Beyond being occasionally able to pull a great audience like this (and show a good, albeit unexpected, matchup), these channels (and ESPN’s various digital options, whether that’s ESPN3 or ESPN+) have been extremely valuable to them for when games go down. And they’ve had a lot of big games go down. When that happens, ESPN has needed to bump up games from lower networks or from streaming options.

And having extra game inventory they can use for that has left ESPN in a much better position for 2020’s changes than, say, when NBC had to replace a Thanksgiving night NFL game with a dog show rerun. Of course, that one is an extreme example, as it’s NFL rather than college, and it was a special night even. But ESPN has had an easier time dealing with 2020’s college football cancellations and postponements than Fox, which has more limited CFB tonnage. And NBC is lucky that their six Notre Dame games (including one they put on USA) went ahead as planned; the one Notre Dame game that was cancelled was an ABC game. So, at any rate, the BYU-Coastal Carolina ratings help affirm that ESPNU games can draw just fine (for that network) when needed. And this year’s schedule changes help affirm the value of having channels like ESPNU, having games for them, and being able to be flexible with where those games air when the schedule gets altered.

[ESPN Press Room; photo via ESPN’s Ryan McGee]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.