Examining the College Football Playoff After Three Years

On Monday 26 million people watched Alabama play Clemson. The game kicked off at 8:17 pm eastern time and finished the next day, over four hours later, at roughly 12:30 eastern. The title game was fantastic — one of the best in college football history — but the audience wasn’t. Fewer people watched the title game this year than watched the exact same game last year.

In fact, I noticed something pretty interesting, 39 million people — or 50% more viewers — watched the Green Bay Packers play the New York Giants in a wild card game on Fox the day before the national title game aired. 

And that got me thinking: why is the audience for college football’s title game stagnating over the past twenty years while the NFL has seen enormous ratings and television growth? Especially when, objectively speaking, I think you can make the case that Florida State-Michigan, Penn State-USC, and Clemson-Alabama are all much more entertaining games than anything the NFL postseason has thus far produced. 

As someone who absolutely, positively loves college football, why does our sport have a lower rating for a title game in 2016 between Clemson and Alabama than a title game in 1999 between Tennessee and Florida State?

Here are the audiences for the college football “title games” since all the way back to 1998.

While college football’s audience has been declining or staying the same for twenty years by comparison’s sake the 1999 Super Bowl had 83.7 million viewers and the 2016 Super Bowl rose to 112 million

So the NFL has surged in viewership for its title game while college football has, at best, stayed stagnant. 

Only one title game audience has been smaller than 2016’s since 2005, when it became commonplace for a consensus national champion to be crowned — a 2011 SEC rematch between Alabama and LSU.

So what can we learn from these audience measurements and is there any way to grow the college football audience as we prepare to enter the fourth year of the playoff? Here’s my look at what we know and what might make sense in the years ahead. 

1. The South loves college football more than any other region.

Nine of the top ten markets for Alabama-Clemson were in the South.

In fact, the South loves college football so much that even when Southern teams aren’t playing — as happened when Oregon played Ohio State, the highest rated title game since USC-Texas — the South still brings in the majority of the viewing audience. The South is, in other words, the base of the college football title game’s viewership. That base shows up no matter who is playing, SEC or otherwise. 

That’s why the biggest possible audiences for college football title games come, interestingly, when SEC teams aren’t even playing. That’s because while the South is showing up regardless — ratings didn’t dip much for Oregon-Ohio State in the South — the rest of the country is more fickle. The casual viewer in the West and the Midwest only comes if teams of local interest are playing. This means the best possible match up in the country for college football title viewership would probably be USC against Ohio State, Notre Dame, or Michigan.

When two Southern teams play, it’s the worst ratings draw possible. Alabama playing Ohio State instead of Clemson would have probably meant an additional four to five million viewers for the broadcast.  

2. What’s the ratings impact of putting the game on cable and would ESPN ever move the game to an ABC simulcast?

There is no doubt that millions more people would watch the college football playoff if it aired on network television, but as you can see from the graphic above the stagnant viewership isn’t all attributable to the cable audience.

So why not the best of both worlds, a simulcast that airs on ESPN and ABC?

That’s not happening. The reason that ESPN can pay so much money for the playoff — a reported $608 million a year — is because they are airing the games on cable. Putting the games on cable helps to drive demand for the channel among viewers and justifies the cost of that channel to cable and satellite companies. (It’s the same rationale employed by Fox when FS1 carried the NLCS, by Turner when TBS carried the national title game in college basketball, and NBC when NBCSN carries top hockey broadcasts. More people would watch these games on Fox, CBS and NBCSN, but the cable business model requires top games air on the cable networks to justify subscriber fees.)

The downside of this decision is that it limits the audience. There are millions of people in the nation who are huge college football fans and have network television, but don’t have cable and satellite due to the cost. So you’re automatically limiting your audience when you put a game on cable.

This situation is even more exacerbated when you consider that ESPN has lost 10 million cable and satellite households in the past several years. Indeed, it’s fair to ask how many cable and satellite subscribers ESPN will even have when this deal runs out in nine years and how that could also continue to impact viewing habits.

But many of you have asked why ESPN can’t simulcast the title game like they do the NFL Wild Card game between the Texans and the Raiders, the answer is, they can’t based on the contracts they signed.  

3. Why is the title game on Monday night?

Just about everyone reading this has to work on Tuesday morning and based on our readership demographics the majority of you have to work in the eastern time zone. 

This means that millions of you went to work on Tuesday morning on substantially less sleep than normal. 

Late start times during the week are not unique to college football’s postseason — we see them with the World Series and the NBA playoffs, for instance — but it is rare to have a single game playoff happen on a weeknight. After all, it’s impossible to make a seven game NBA Finals or a seven game World Series happen just on the weekend. 

But the challenge is this — the NFL has taken over weekend programming with its wild card games on every weekend that the college football playoff would occur. Putting the college football playoff head-to-head with an NFL wild card on Saturday night would lead to even lower viewership since many of the college football viewers overlap with the NFL audience. 

So that leaves Monday night. 

Which isn’t ideal for anyone.

The only suggestion I would make here is this one — is it possible to experiment with a Friday night game, maybe in advance of the NFL’s divisional weekend games on Saturday and Sunday?

I think this would be better for the long range future of the title game.

I’ll use my kids as an example here. Do you know how my eight year old found out who won the Clemson-Alabama game? He woke up, got his iPad next to his bed and asked Siri.

He asked Siri!

I’ve never asked Siri any question, but my kids love it. They ask Siri everything. The kids were in bed long before the game ended. And whereas you or I might have woken up and put on ESPN to see what happened, my kids just rolled out of bed and asked Siri first thing in the morning.

If the game is going to start at 8:17 eastern — this didn’t receive much attention, but ESPN actually moved the start of the game up from 8:30 eastern the past two years to try and have it end earlier — how much better would it be to at least have a Saturday morning to sleep in the next day? I know Friday isn’t an ideal TV viewing night, but I think branding this as Friday Night Lights — especially since high school football is over — could actually do well and become a yearly tradition.

Regardless I think it would certainly work better than Monday night. 

4. Why can’t you play the two playoff games on January 1?

Many of you, myself included, feel like college football is made for New Year’s Day. That’s why it stinks that the two playoff games aren’t generally played on this day.

Why aren’t they?

Because the Rose Bowl refuses to move off New Year’s Day. As a result the Sugar Bowl also refuses to move off New Year’s Day. Since ESPN carries both of these games there is no broadcast window for the playoff games on New Year’s Day.  

Now all of you reading this may not love me, but I think even those of you who hate me would acknowledge that I love college football. If college football played its national title game at three in the morning and it ended at seven in the morning I would still watch it. There is literally not a time during the day when I would miss it. 

Many of you are the same way. 

But most casual viewers aren’t. 

Fortunately we are at least coming off the New Year’s Eve debacle in the year’s ahead; the next two years of the semifinals will be played on Saturdays. ESPN deserves credit for fighting to make this happen after the college football playoff crew insisted on New Year’s Eve for every year in the original contract. And that, my friends, was an unmitigated ratings disaster, with 40% of the audience vanishing from 2014 to 2015.  

5. Okay, can you at least shorten the game so it doesn’t end at 12:30 et?

The length of the games is something that college football has to rectify. 

Many of you saw the reaction when I had the gall to suggest that the halftime performances of the band were unnecessary as one way to shorten college football games. The band geeks went on a social media riot directed at me. I had no idea I’d trigger the band community; I was just making suggestions on Twitter for how we could shorten college games.

I believe that college football needs to follow the NFL’s lead and find a way to get its average game just over three hours in length.

There’s no way that a title game should go over four hours like Monday night’s game did. Especially when you’re trying to grow your audience. 

Contrary to popular criticism, the ad segments are not more than a couple of minutes extra for a big game like the title game. So that didn’t change much. 

With that in mind here are my best ideas for how to shorten college games:

1. Have advertisers pay twice as much for half as many ads to air during the game.

It’s a basic rule of economics that if there is less of a product that is in demand you can charge more for it. So why not do this with advertising? Have less ads, but charge more for them. 

Included in those ad buys put a perpetual sponsor tag on the screen like they do in soccer. Hell, you could even auction off each quarter and have it brought to you by a presenting sponsor. I’m not opposed to ad integration in sports — I love them, they’re how we all make money — but in this new age we all need to get more creative about how we reach customers. And a traditional commercial, kickoff, take a knee in the end zone, commercial segment is not going to work for modern consumers. 

You could shorten games by a ton if you cut the number of commercials and charged more for them. 

As everyone who attends games in person knows, the players are ready to play for a long time every game while you wait for TV to come back from commercial breaks. 

2. Eliminate clock stoppages for first downs. 

It’s past time to do this and it should be a simple decision.  

3. Have the bands perform after a game instead of during halftime. 

If people want to see the band they can stay for the performance after the game. You can also have the band perform outside the stadium before the game as many bands already do.

College football halftimes are twice as long as NFL halftimes. That’s because of the bands. Standardize halftimes in the NFL and in college, both should be 12 minutes long.

Contrary to what band people believe — NO ONE COMES TO SEE YOU PERFORM.

4. Eliminate constant booth instant replay review.

They reviewed way too many plays on Monday night and that added quite a bit of length to the game. Take the lead from the NFL and give each coach challenge flags and let him challenge plays he believes have been wrongly decided. Otherwise, let’s keep the game moving.

I think if you implemented all four of these suggestions average college game times would decline precipitously and get back closer to the length of NFL games.   

Let’s implement all of these ideas and make college football great again. 

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