The bowl season is officially over and our friend Paulsen at Sports Media Watch has all the viewership data for 39 of the 40 bowl games as well as national championship games from all levels of college football. (The 40th bowl game, the Cure Bowl between Arkansas State and UCF, was on CBS Sports Network, which is still not rated by Nielsen.)
The numbers tell an interesting tale about the value of bowl games and the major impact of the College Football Playoff.
Here’s a few takeaways from this year’s bowl season as it relates to television…
1) New Year’s Eve semifinals better, but still a terrible idea
Clemson-Ohio State and Alabama-Washington improved upon last year’s first attempt at “changing the paradigm of New Year’s Eve” but they were still well off where the national semifinals were when they were televised on New Year’s Day.
2014: 28.2 million (Oregon-Florida State)
2015: 15.7 million (Clemson-Oklahoma)
2016: 19.3 million (Alabama-Washington)
2014: 28.3 million (Ohio State-Alabama)
2015: 18.6 million (Alabama-Michigan State)
2016: 19.2 million (Clemson-Ohio State)
So much of the ratings game is PR spin, so when ESPN says “SEMIFINALS UP BIG FROM LAST YEAR” it only tells half of the story. In reality, the two semifinals on average still lost about 9 million viewers in each game compared to the first year of the playoff. Thank goodness next year the semis are back on New Year’s Day where ratings will likely shoot to the moon and the CFP committee will be reminded how silly the New Year’s Eve idea was in the first place.
2) Does NYE also have an impact on the title game?
Here’s another interesting factor that not many people are talking about, but also builds off the first point. We know this year’s Clemson-Alabama matchup was down slightly from last year’s matchup. It’s curious given how great a game it was and how the rematch should have theoretically driven more interest. Maybe one factor is ESPN’s drop in subscribers. Maybe one factor is the regional matchup from the south, where college football is already insanely popular.
But maybe it’s also the New Year’s Eve semifinals and the impact on the National Championship Game. Just take a look at these numbers and note the dramatic drop-off from 2014.
2014: 34.1 million (Ohio State-Oregon)
2015: 26.2 million (Alabama-Clemson)
2016: 25.3 million (Clemson-Alabama)
It can’t be just coincidence that 2014 saw a huge rating in the semifinals and the final while 2015 and 2016 fell far behind. It’s just three data points, and maybe we need a matchup besides Alabama-Clemson to really test the theory, but it’ll be interesting to see if the title game also sees a major increase next year with the semifinals moving back to the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. All three years have seen the championship game rating logically rise significantly from the two semifinals. However, with the semifinals lowered so dramatically, maybe it has had an impact on the championship game as well.
3) Bowl games suffer away from ESPN’s bowl monopoly
This went under-the-radar just a little bit, but outside of the PR battles surrounding insipid debate shows, this shows the real struggle that FS1 or any network faces in looking to topple ESPN.
It has to do with the Foster Farms Bowl (bonus points if anyone can name where it is or who actually played in it this year) which was televised by Fox on network television. The former CEO of the bowl game basically admitted that televising the game on Fox, and away from ESPN’s bowl game promotional machinery, hurt it overall. Although it goes against conventional wisdom that broadcast television should draw more viewers, the numbers show that may indeed be the case.
The Utah-Indiana matchup was down 35% from the previous year. It was also outdrawn by over 1 million viewers by both bowl games on ESPN that night (Miami-WVU and KState-Texas A&M). A similar story can be told by the Sun Bowl on CBS. It was also outrated by all the other games played on that day by ESPN.
ESPN basically has a monopoly on the bowl season as their “family of networks” televise 38 of 41 possible games. ESPN has even been involved in the creation of bowl games that has helped to further serve their monopoly and inflate an already inflated bowl season. It’s the lesson for any network looking to compete with Bristol. No matter how many millions or how much noise is spent on provocateurs sitting in a studio somewhere, what really matters is the quality and quantity of the actual sports you can offer to fans.
4) All but one bowl game drew over 1,000,000 viewers
Finally, this is the justification for why there are so many bowl games with 6-6 and even 5-7 teams featuring.
Incredibly, the only bowl game rated by Nielsen to fail to reach seven figure viewership was the Miami Beach Bowl between Tulsa and Central Michigan, which drew 794,000 viewers. It was played early in bowl season on Monday December 17th at 2:30 PM ET, which isn’t exactly a prime timeslot.
Some numbers that might surprise you? How about Ohio-Troy drawing 2.5 million viewers or Wake Forest-Temple drawing 2.1 million. Even the Belk Bowl, featuring Virginia Tech and Arkansas, drew almost 5 million viewers.
Why has ESPN been so persistent in tightening their grip on this growing bowl game empire? Even though some might say the games are meaningless… even though some of these games draw less attendance than an ECHL game… even though there might be a push to get rid of some of these games so that bowl games can truly mean something again… it won’t happen because the viewers are there regardless.
And as long as ESPN can drive viewership with all of these bowl games, from the Idaho Potato Bowl to the National Championship Game, they’ll see it as an important pillar of their dominance in sports television.