The College Football Playoff is a marvelous thing.
The timing of the national semifinal games?
Boy, did they get that one wrong.
The Orange Bowl, a matchup between top-ranked Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma that kicked off in the late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, could’ve passed for an Alamo or Holiday Bowl.
There simply wasn’t the sort of buzz one would expect from a game of that stature, which surely had a lot to do with a 4 p.m. EST starting time, when many people were just wrapping up their final work day of 2015.
Ditto for the Cotton Bowl, which began shortly after Clemson finished off its 37-17 victory over the Sooners. While held in prime time, the game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Michigan State was overshadowed by New Year’s celebrations around the country; in fact, the Tide’s 38-0 rout ended just minutes before the crystal ball dropped in Times Square.
If that wasn’t enough of a downer, playing the semifinal games on Dec. 31 left what is traditionally the biggest day of the season — New Year’s Day — feeling like a bit of an afterthought, not all that different than staging the championship game in women’s basketball 24 hours after the men play for the title at the Final Four.
The whole fabric of the college bowl season is out of whack. How are we supposed to get fired up for Rose, Sugar and Fiesta bowls when two more important games have already been held and most folks are now focused on the Jan. 11 national championship?
This much is clear: the semifinal games should move back to New Year’s Day. The other major bowls should serve as worthy prelims, not meaningless consolations.
Of course, the powers-that-be are refusing to acknowledge the obvious. This is, after all, the sport that nonsensically resisted a playoff until last season.
Well, let’s throw out the talking points we know so far. Start with ESPN’s performance on New Year’s Eve. It was downright abysmal.
The Orange Bowl got a 9.1 rating, a plunge of 38.5 percent from last year’s Rose Bowl (14.8) held in the same afternoon time slot but on Jan. 1. The number of viewers fell even more — dropping 44.5 percent from 28,164,000 for the Rose to just 15,640,000 for the Orange, a staggering decline for such a high-profile event.
The Cotton Bowl endured a similar nosedive. The 9.6 rating was down a whopping 36.8 percent from last year’s 15.2 for the Sugar Bowl in the same time slot, while the total viewership crashed 34.4 percent, going from 28,271,000 to 18,552,000.
Of course, neither game was competitive, and that didn’t help.
But there’s no way to sugarcoat this debacle. For all six major bowls on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there was a 13 percent drop in ratings from last year.
The Rose Bowl, featuring Christian McCaffrey-led Stanford and a rout of Iowa on Friday, drew its lowest rating (7.9) since 1999.
But don’t expect any changes to future CFP schedules based on the one-year dip.
“That decline, frankly, is not much of a surprise and it’s modest,” said Bill Hancock, CFP executive director. “It’s too soon to know how much was due to the lopsided games or how much what I think we all thought would be an inevitable decline from the excitement of the first year or the semifinals on New Year’s Eve. I suspect it’s a combination of those three, but I don’t have any idea what the weighting is. ESPN is studying the numbers and we’ll learn a lot more in the next few months.”
The average margin of victory in the New Year’s Six games was 24.2 points.
“The College Football Playoff is a long-term, multiplatform play for us,” Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling, said in a statement. “With that said, there are many variables that impact ratings results including what happens on the field and the numbers this year were obviously impacted by the unbalanced scores of these games.”
ESPN has the rights to all six games. This is the second season of 12-year contracts worth a total of $7.3 million to the major college football conferences. The Rose and Sugar bowls have separate television deals with ESPN that lock in their prime New Year’s Day time slots. When the CFP semifinals are played in the other four games in the New Year’s Six rotation, they will be played on New Year’s Eve.
ESPN suggested moving this season’s semifinals to Jan. 2, a Saturday with no NFL games to compete against, but playoff officials did not want to delay the start of what they hope can become a new tradition.Next season, the Fiesta and Peach bowls will host the semifinals on New Year’s Eve, which falls on a Saturday. The semifinals are back in the Rose and Sugar bowls, and on New Year’s Day, after the 2017 season.
“There hasn’t been discussion in our group at all about changing the dates,” Hancock said.
What makes all of this more infuriating is that ESPN recognized the ratings Armageddon it was facing. At least a year ago, the network suggested holding the semifinal games on Jan. 2, which falls on a Saturday.
The CFP balked at that idea, not wanting to disrupt its plans to carve out a niche on New Year’s Eve. In retrospect, that decision is roughly akin to casting Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs.
We all got punked.