The overnight ratings for the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl both dropped by double-digits, and that doesn't worry ESPN in the least.
TCU's win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl drew an overnight rating of 11.7 on ESPN -- down from the 13.8 rating that last years game drew on ABC. The overnights for OU's blowout win over Connecticut were 6.7, the second-lowest overnight rating for any BCS game. Only the 2009 Orange Bowl on Fox between Cincinnati and Virgina Tech posted a lower overnight number (6.1).
Of course the ratings can be explained by the fact that the games moved to cable for the first time, and for ESPN these numbers will do just fine for now. The Rose Bowl game will probably still translate into over 20 million viewers when the final numbers are tallied.
TCU's 2-point win over Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl pulled the highest overnight rating for any non-NFL program on cable in the past decade.
ESPN is all about branding -- which is why they have spread out the 33 bowl games that they control to cover almost an entire month. It's why we are getting Middle Tennessee vs. Miami of Ohio in the GoDaddy.com bowl Thursday night and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl featuring Nevada vs. Boston College the night before the BCS championship game. With its double-revenue stream (monthly subscription fees + advertising dollars) ESPN is using all these games to strengthen their entire lineup (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNClassic, etc.)
You don't just buy one game on ESPN -- you buy the entire package. You are buying the ESPN brand name. Monday Night Football on ESPN is a perfect example of what they are striving for.
The ten most-watched sporting events on cable TV in 2010 were all Monday Night Football telecasts.
ESPN just concluded its fifth season of hosting Monday Night Football and the cable network averaged over 14.6 million viewers a week. Prior to MNF, the most-viewed show ever on cable TV was a 1993 edition of Larry King Live. Ten of the eleven (and fourteen of the sixteen) most-viewed programs in cable television history are now Monday Night Football games on ESPN.
After 5 years on ESPN, Monday Night Football is drawing about 10% fewer viewers per week than in its final year on ABC. Again, that's okay with ESPN, because every single week this past season MNF led the network to the highest ratings -- broadcast or cable -- among the coveted audience demographic of men 18-49 during that broadcast time period.
This year's bowl lineup may be stretched too thin in terms of quality matchups, and ratings generally will be down for the bowl telecasts, but for ESPN it is just another content stream that strengthens their bottom line.