Dec 9, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Army Black Knights quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw (17) carries the ball against the Navy Midshipmen in the third quarter of the 118th Army Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The declining ratings and viewership for the NFL are a pair of talking points that only grow louder each week. But while the NFL’s viewership is commonly discussed, the declining viewership for college football in 2017 didn’t get much national attention.

Unlike the NFL, where you have three windows on Sunday and individual windows on Monday and Thursday nights, there are multiple windows for college football and games are spread out throughout the week. However, in looking at the numbers for ABC/ESPN, CBS, and NBC, viewership (for the mostpart) was down, while Fox and FS1 were up.

The increases for Fox and FS1 can be directly be attributed to the addition of the Big Ten to its existing inventory of Big 12 and Pac-12 games.

According to Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily, the numbers for the networks look like this:

  • ABC: 4.203 million, down 18% from 5.097 million
  • CBS: 4.951 million viewers, down 10% from 5.489 million
  • ESPN: 2.155 million, down 6% from 2.3 million
  • NBC (Notre Dame): 2.742, down 3% from 2.814 million
  • Fox: 3.625 million, up 23% from 2.951 million
  • FS1: 819,000, up 4% from 743,000

The SEC on CBS was the most-watched package for the ninth straight season, but viewership was the lowest in over a decade.

Saturday Night Football on ABC was the most-watched window with 5.7 million viewers, but that was down 4% according to Karp.

On cable, ESPN was the most-viewed network for college football, but its numbers were down due to the loss of more attractive Big Ten games to Fox/FS1. As for FS1, it had its best season ever for college football viewership.

Viewership totals for BTN, SEC Network, and Pac-12 Networks were not available.

As for this weekend, CBS saw a 5.9 overnight rating for the Army-Navy game, up 5% from last year and Sports TV Ratings says that was the best number since 1994.

The Heisman Trophy on ESPN was mainly an afterthought, mainly due to the lack of suspense in the voting.

Fox and FS1 certainly picked up where ABC/ESPN lost, but certainly the Worldwide Leader doesn’t need any sympathy. Their networks had their share of big games this season despite not having Ohio State-Michigan and other glamour Big Ten matchups. ESPN was still able to tap into the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC as well as some less marquee Big Ten games.

Karp told SI’s Richard Deitsch that interest in college football hasn’t waned, but some of the minor conferences that aired on ABC/ESPN just didn’t draw eyeballs. Plus, there were some blowouts on the schedule for all networks:

“For CBS, the SEC was just too top heavy this season,” Karp continued. “They had some bad matchups on the network. Alabama is still a draw, but there is a limit on the number of Alabama games the network can air, and Georgia-Florida or any Tennessee game just aren’t what they used to be. For NBC, Notre Dame fans just didn’t watch early in the season, expecting some sort of repeat of 2016’s debacle. But NBC saw improvement over the last three game telecasts. I’d say college football fans were winners this season. There are options galore on TV, and that doesn’t even include improvement on the streaming front. Networks like CBS and ESPN need to see improvement from some big-time programs like Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Nebraska and maybe even an Oregon. That would increase the availability of bigger games for those networks.”

Despite some lower numbers, college football is still a draw and it’s a major reason why networks pay a premium to carry conferences like the Big Ten.


About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013.

He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television.

Fang celebrates the four Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.