In a 2020 that has been anything but normal, college football’s Championship Saturday provided the latest twist. That twist didn’t come in the results of the games, but instead, the start times. The SEC Championship moved into primetime from its usual mid-afternoon slot. The Big Ten title game jumped from primetime to noon. The Conference USA and MAC Championships moved from Saturday to Friday. The ACC title game moved from primetime to mid-afternoon, while the American title game went the other way. The two title games that didn’t move timeslots were the Big 12 (remaining at noon) and the Mountain West (staying in the mid-afternoon, though earning a promotion from ESPN to Fox).
Unsurprisingly, the flood of changes didn’t exactly benefit the larger college football world.
On Friday night, the MAC championship drew 875,000 viewers on ESPN. That’s up 144% from last year’s game, which drew 358,000 million viewers on ESPN2 at noon on Saturday. Over on Fox, the Pac-12 title game drew 3.847 million viewers, down 34% from last year’s game (5.856 million on ABC). The Conference USA championship aired on CBS Sports Network, which is not rated by Nielsen.
In the noon window on Saturday, the Big 12 championship drew 2.990 million viewers on ABC. That’s down a ridiculous 65% from last year’s game on ABC (8.700 million viewers). The Big Ten championship on Fox drew 8.031 million viewers, down 41% from last year’s game in primetime (13.550 million viewers).
In the mid-afternoon window, the ACC championship drew 9.919 million viewers on ABC, up 150% from last year’s game in primetime (3.970 million viewers). The Mountain West title game drew 1.421 million viewers on Fox, up 158% from last year’s game (550,000 million viewers on ESPN).
In primetime, the SEC title game drew 8.921 million viewers on CBS, down 35% from last year’s game in the mid-afternoon (13.703 million viewers). The American championship drew 1.882 million viewers, down 34% from last year’s game in the mid-afternoon window (1.882 million viewers).
There were also several non-championship conference games that took place on Saturday. The only one of those to top a million viewers was Texas A&M vs Tennessee, which drew 1.663 million viewers at noon on ESPN.
So, let’s recap!
- MAC: up.
- Pac-12: down.
- Big 12: down.
- Big Ten: down.
- ACC: up.
- Mountain West: up.
- SEC: down.
- American: down.
So of the eight title games, five were down compared to last year’s game, and those five were all down by more than 30%. The three games that were up increased by at least 140%.
Of the four windows (Friday primetime, Saturday noon, Saturday mid-afternoon, Saturday primetime), both games in each of the Saturday noon and primetime windows were down, and both games in the mid-afternoon window were up.
The wrench thrown into the works was the presence of the NFL doubleheader on NFL Network. The mid-afternoon game between the Bills and Broncos drew 4.531 million viewers, and the primetime game between the Panthers and Packers drew 5.611 million viewers. That certainly siphoned some audience away from college football, as did the college basketball tripleheader on CBS to a lesser degree. Those three games averaged 1.164 million viewers, topping out at 1.351 million for Iowa-Gonzaga at noon.
I think the most telling sign regarding college football viewership in 2020 is that Clemson-Notre Dame, way back in Week 10, is still the only game of this season to draw at least ten million viewers and one of two prior to Championship Week to top seven million viewers. Last year, there were eight going into Championship Week (including Ohio State-Michigan, which was cancelled this year) and another three on Championship Saturday. This year, the rematch between the Tigers and Fighting Irish couldn’t even top ten million, let alone hit the 13 million mark posted by both LSU-Georgia and Ohio State-Wisconsin last year.
The audience for top-level college football has disappeared this season, and that is quite worrying for the sport and its TV partners (most notably, ESPN) going into bowl season. Are fans going to be excited for yet another dose of Clemson-Ohio State and Alabama-Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff? If the viewership for the regular season is any indication, probably not.
[Data via ShowBuzz Daily, Sports Media Watch]