Rose Bowl draws 20.6 million as ESPN rolls out BCS premiere

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Saturday’s Rose Bowl between TCU and Wisconsin drew ESPN’s highest rating ever for a non-NFL game, with 20.6 million total viewers, according to the Nielsen Co.

Brilliant as that figure was, however, the game — a nailbiter that TCU won, 21-19 — was still down 14% compared with last year’s Rose Bowl, which aired on ESPN’s sister broadcaster ABC.

This year marks an epic shift in the balance between cable and broadcast, because it’s the first time that the Bowl Championship Series has aired entirely on cable. ESPN snatched the TV rights with a four-year deal worth a reported $500 million.

The move seems to be translating into notably lower ratings. The Rose Bowl was followed by the Fiesta Bowl, a blowout in which Oklahoma stomped Connecticut, 48-20. The game drew 10.8 million viewers, down 22% from last year’s Fiesta game on Fox.


However, the BCS deal is likely still a winner for ESPN. Unlike broadcasters, the network can recoup its costs not just through advertising but also from subscriber fees it collects from cable operators. And the more big events it telecasts, the easier it is to charge those high fees.

— Scott Collins (Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT)