It’s tough to spin the ratings for college football’s six biggest bowl games as anything but disappointing. That’s exactly what ESPN’s public relations team was tasked with, though, and to be fair to them, they did what they could.
Here’s the release announcing the numbers for the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, the final two games to be played.
The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual featuring Washington vs. Ohio State (5 p.m.) and the Allstate Sugar Bowl between Texas and Georgia (8:45 p.m.) delivered New Year’s Six record ratings, with both bowls achieving their highest non-CFP Semifinal rating in the College Football Playoff five-year history. The significant New Year’s Day ratings, combined with the strong College Football Playoff Semifinals and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl ratings on December 29, resulted in a new high-water mark for the New Year’s Six among years with similar calendar structure.
So, sure, that sounds good! Except for that last line noting the calendar, a reader in a vacuum might come away from that thinking everything was, if not stellar, at least fine. But it’s not, really! Also, why are you reading press releases in a vacuum? Get to safety!
The narrative around the bowl ratings has been anything but positive, even while acknowledging the odd scheduling and the semifinal matchups that managed to feel neither fresh or competitive. The numbers bore that out, too, with semifinal ratings down 25%, for two of the worst CFP games ever from a ratings perspective:
Here are all of the College Football Playoff semifinals, ranked by viewership: pic.twitter.com/N3EdYn3JVw
— Sports Media Watch (@paulsen_smw) January 1, 2019
It’s interesting to note that the 2015 games down there at the bottom were played on a New Year’s Eve Thursday; there might not be a worse time to kick off a semifinal than a weekday New Year’s Eve at 4 PM Eastern. This year’s semifinal games did feel weirdly early, both on the calendar (coming on December 29th) and in terms of start time, with Clemson-Notre Dame playing in the afternoon. But it was still a Saturday, the day of the week we’re trained to expect college football.
The games were obviously not competitive, unless you were a squinting Oklahoma fan at various points in the second half of the Orange Bowl. That’s the real kicker; people aren’t going to see a blowout score and decide to tune in, nor will they stick around to watch Clemson kick the crap out of Notre Dame, as entertaining as that is for most neutral fans.
Back to ESPN’s final release on the New Year’s Six: it touts the Rose Bowl rating like this:
The Rose Bowl Game delivered a 9.7 overnight (ESPN and ESPN2) up 3% from the 2017 Rose Bowl Game (1/1/2017) and up 23% from the 2016 edition (1/1/16). The overnight for the Buckeyes’ victory becomes the highest-rated non-Semifinal New Year’s Six game, overtaking the previously mentioned 2017 Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl peaked at 10.9 overnight late in the fourth quarter as Washington made a valiant comeback attempt (8:30-8:45 p.m.).
While noting it’s the highest non-semifinal game, it’s fun to also note that it nearly outdrew both of this year’s semifinals. If the CFP games were on Fox or CBS, you can bet that release would have mentioned it. Instead, we have a New Year’s Six (only three of which were played on New Year’s, with the other three taking place 12/29) that didn’t out-rate the Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship game.
ESPN pays around $600 million a year to air the College Football Playoff, and while the vagaries of the calendar are tough (especially if ESPN can’t get the playoff bowls annually on New Year’s Day, which has to be frustrating) this wasn’t a good ratings year. Maybe it all goes out the window if Alabama and Clemson play a thriller, but that’s far from guaranteed.