Georgia and Alabama will square off Monday night in the College Football Playoff title game, which will be very exciting for fans of those teams and much less exciting for just about everyone else.
For the first time since 2012, the national championship will feature two teams from one conference (the SEC), and analysts are predicting low ratings because of it. And if viewership is bad enough, as some experts are speculating, the College Football Playoff could face pressure to expand from four teams to eight.
CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd quotes multiple TV consultants, including former CBS president Neal Pilson, as projecting low ratings for the Alabama-Georgia title game on ESPN, relative to past matchups.
“I think, from a television point of view, any sports executive would tell you he would prefer a team from the different part of the country,” said Pilson, now a longtime sports media consultant.
“The best would be a Big Ten team in terms of the size of market.”
One consultant told Dodd he thinks the game could be the lowest-rated College Football Playoff championship yet. The last time two SEC teams faced off in a college football title game, LSU and Alabama drew the third lowest rating of the BCS era, a result that, per CBS Sports, helped inspire the new College Football Playoff paradigm.
Poor viewership for this year’s championship game would surely embolden calls for an expanded playoff that would afford more teams from more regions a shot at reaching the season’s biggest game. In the four-year history of the College Football Playoff, the Big 12 and Pac-12 have missed out twice apiece, with the Big Ten excluded this year for the first time. Those conferences are obviously never happy about being left out, and ESPN is presumably less than thrilled when its marquee event winds up largely confined to one region. The four schools in this year’s playoffs all stand within about 1,000 miles of each other. You could pretty easily road trip to all four by driving a straight line across the southeastern quadrant of the country.
A more inclusive playoff could function in a number of ways. College football could ditch the often-underwhelming conference championship games for an eight-team tournament, or it could leave the conference title matchups and institute a six-team playoff with byes for the two best teams. The new, larger event could assure a slot for every conference champion, or it could simply reward the eight best teams and assume regional diversity will follow. No matter how exactly the event would work, it’s clear that it could work, if ESPN and the conference commissioners are interested.
Of course, concern about engaging different regions could easily dissipate next year if, say, Ohio State and USC make the Playoff. On the other hand, if all-SEC title games become somewhat of a norm, momentum for an expanded playoff could only continue to grow.