College Football Playoff Games on New Year's Eve Were a Ratings Disaster, Could Cost ESPN $20 Millio


If you thought scheduling college football playoff games on New Year’s Eve was a bad idea, you now have a reason to gloat.

The ratings were a lot worse than ESPN told advertisers they would be, and now the network owes advertisers at least $20 million in makegoods, according to Broadcasting & Cable.

ESPN may have gotten a bit greedy when setting its ratings estimates and offering higher guarantee levels to advertisers for the two games, knowing audiences might not flock to their TV sets, despite the optimism of the CFP committee. However, advertisers are concerned about next season’s potential audience levels for the games, which will also be televised on New Year’s Eve. Even if the ratings guarantees by ESPN are set lower, advertisers would prefer the games be moved to New Year’s Day or even on consecutive primetime nights, exclusive of New Year’s Eve, when more people would likely watch.

This is not good.

[UPDATEAn ESPN spokesman had ‘no comment’ to The Big Lead on the Broadcasting and Cable report.]

So is this a disaster?

Well, the ratings were down a third from last year, which is a catastrophic decline that shows playing live sporting events on New Year’s Eve is a terrible idea, like holding a bachelor party on Valentine’s Day. And it is another indicator of a particular cluelessness at the administrative levels of the sport. College football playoff executive director Bill Hancock described the ratings dip as “modest.” Then again, this is the same guy who told the New York Times he doesn’t care about TV ratings much anyway.

“We don’t make decisions based on television numbers. I don’t have a TV number that influences my measurable for success.”

That’s a strange thing to hear from a guy who is responsible for putting on a major entertainment event. But as anyone who’s ever been stuck at a wedding during a big game can tell you, there are ways around this. Namely: Watching on your phone. Sports Illustrated reported the digital numbers for both NYE games were strong.

On the plus side, the Orange Bowl was up 111% from last season’s New Year’s Eve late afternoon game (Fiesta Bowl) and up 75% from the 2014 Orange Bowl. The digital story was also very good. ESPN said Oklahoma-Clemson drew 1,188,000 unique viewers for its WatchESPN broadcast, the second-most ever viewers for any sporting event, excluding the World Cup, on WatchESPN. (Last year’s title game ranks ahead.) Alabama-Michigan State had 1,047,000 unique viewers, ranking fourth on that same list.

Clearly, the thirst for these games is as strong as ever, but so is the thirst for New Year’s Eve champagne. It was arrogant for Hancock and ESPN to think this logistical conflict was not going to be a problem for their broadcasts, not to mention the finger it put in the eye of college football’s best fans — who wants to be the guy at the club watching TV on his phone?

The good news is, ESPN and the committee can make it right next y–

Hancock sees no reason to change the scheduling of the Playoff, which, over the next 10 years, will feature seven more pairs of semifinals on New Year’s Eve, five of them on weeknights.

So … who’s up for a toast?