TV ratings plunge as College Football Playoff semifinals move to New Year’s Eve

Sterling Shepard, T.J. Green

Much like Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard and Clemson defensive back T. J. Green, ratings for the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve were headed the wrong direction.

(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

Television ratings for the first College Football Playoff semifinals held on New Year’s Eve dropped about 36% from last season when they were played on New Year’s Day.

ESPN announced the overnight ratings Friday.

The Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma, which kicked off about 4:10 p.m. EST on ESPN, drew a 9.7 rating. The first semifinal last season, the Rose Bowl with Oregon and Florida State on New Year’s Day, earned a 15.5.

The Michigan State-Alabama Cotton Bowl drew a 9.9 rating for ESPN compared to 15.3 for Ohio State-Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last Jan. 1.


College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said he was still awaiting the results of the New Year’s Day games.

The dramatic matchups and results of last year’s games helped draw record-breaking cable audiences for last year’s first College Football Playoff. The faceoff between Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl drew 28 million viewers.

Ohio State and Alabama, two of the most popular programs in college football, played a game that went down to the final play. Ohio State upset the Crimson Tide, 42-35. That game also drew 28 million viewers. Those games represented the biggest cable TV audiences ever, until the championship game, with Oregon versus Ohio State, topped it with 33 million viewers.

The matchups of this year’s games weren’t as attractive and both turned out to be lopsided. Clemson beat Oklahoma 37-17, pulling away in the second half. Alabama routed Michigan State 38-0 in a game that was pretty much over midway through the third quarter.


But the biggest difference was the day the games were played.

The FBS conference commissioners who put together the College Football Playoff several years ago said they wanted to create a new tradition by playing the semifinals on New Year’s Eve twice every three years over the course of a 12-year contract with ESPN. This is Year 2 of that deal.

The decision was mostly to protect the interests of four conferences and two bowls. The Rose Bowl with the Big Ten and Pac-12 has traditionally been played the afternoon of Jan. 1. The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference decided to have their own Rose Bowl-type relationship with the Sugar Bowl and lock in the television time slot right after the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

Those games have separate TV deals with ESPN and they were set before the playoff was finalized. The contracts with ESPN for the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and College Football Playoff will pay the major college football conferences about $7.3 billion over the life of the deals.

ESPN was comfortable the semifinals could draw huge audiences on New Year’s Eve, but because of a quirk in the 2015 calendar, the network asked about a year ago to make a one-time change to hold the semis Jan. 2 because it fell on a Saturday. But playoff officials didn’t want to switch up the schedule in the first season of New Year’s Eve semifinals.

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