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BCS Era TV Ratings: Texas Longhorns vs. USC Trojans -- The Gold Standard

College football enters the playoff era in 2014, and ESPN would love to see a field that looked like the BCS games from 2006.

Kevork Djansezian

The 16-year run of the BCS is over, and finally we have a play off system with a major goal: get better ratings for ESPN.

The BCS, originated to save the bowl system while crowning a "champion," lasted until the major conferences finally relented to create a 4-team playoff that also incorporated the bowls.  Now ESPN, the rights holder to the playoff (and just about every other bowl game), hopes this system will create a larger viewing audience.

Obviously overall viewership dropped when the BCS went from over-the-air to cable. Still it has been a financial bonanza for ESPN, and cable exec Burke Magnus hopes to extend their reach.

"Our hope is the audience for two semifinal games approaches viewership levels we see now for the championship game, and the championship game we would hope would be substantially above that level," said Mangus

A quick look at the history of the TV ratings for the BCS tells ESPN that - like March Madness - having a "Cinderella" show up at the Final Four is not desirable, and the TV ratings are much better when the usual suspects are involved in the action.

The 2006 version of the BCS series was a TV programmer's wet dream -- games involving Ohio State, Penn State, Florida State, Notre Dame, capping it off with a national championship matchup between two of the Top Ten programs of all time.

Texas-USC: Living Up To It's Billing

This was a Hollywood Blockbuster that had everything: Marquee names above the title -- hero's (Vince Young) villains (Reggie Bush) an all-star supporting cast (Michael Griffin, David Thomas - Matt Leinart, LenDale White) all tied together with a dramatic last minute escape from the jaws of defeat. It was a Technicolor show that broke BCS box office records.

The game pulled in 35.63 million viewers. easily outdistancing all other BCS games. In fact, there was only one other game that topped 30 million viewers and again it involved two elite programs in the Rose Bowl

Top Five Most Viewed BCS Championship Games

2006                            Texas vs. USC                                    35.63 million

2010                            Texas vs. Alabama                             30.78 million

2003                            Ohio State vs. Miami                          29.01 million

2007                            Florida vs. Ohio State                        28.08 million

2011                            Auburn vs. Oregon                             27.32 million

Easily recognizable names. Large alumni and fan bases. Key factors in getting more eyeballs in front of the TV sets for the championship games.

The Rose Bowl - Consistent Ratings Leader

When the BCS was formed the Rose Bowl was a reluctant participant. The idea of losing it's annual Pac10-Big 10 tie-in was an anathema to the leagues, but they finally agreed to play along, and the BCS is very grateful.

The fact remains that the Rose Bowl attracts more "casual" football fans than any other game. Some of it is tradition - it is the oldest bowl with a long history of classic games. That combined with the vast alumni bases for many of the Big 10 or Pac 12 teams make the Rose Bowl the most viewed non-championship BCS game every season during it's 16-year existence.

Top Ten Most Viewed BCS Games  (non-championship)

2010 Rose Bowl         Ohio State vs. Oregon                        24.03 million

2007 Rose Bowl         USC vs. Michigan                                24.03 million

2004 Rose Bowl         USC vs. Michigan                                23.87 million

2009 Rose Bowl         USC vs. Penn State                            20.60 million

2006 Fiesta Bowl        Ohio State vs. Notre Dame               20.60 million*

2011 Rose Bowl         TCU vs. Wisconsin                             20.56 million

2005 Rose Bowl         Texas vs. Michigan                             20.46 million

2001 Sugar Bowl        Miami vs. Florida                                19.78 million*

2008 Rose Bowl         USC vs. Illinois                                   19.00 million

2014 Rose Bowl         Michigan St. vs. Stanford                  18.64 million

*Rose Bowl hosted the National Championship game.

The 2005 Texas-Michigan game is in the middle of pack in terms of non-championship Rose Bowl contests. And yet it would ranks as the most viewed non-championship game in both the Sugar and Orange Bowls during the BCS era.

Now with the playoff system, when the Rose Bowl isn't hosting a semi-final (the championship game is not considered to be a bowl game), it will have a Pac 12-Big 10 matchup. The Sugar Bowl will have a Big 12-SEC game.

As ESPN gears up for the new play off system their executives look longingly at the 2006 BCS games as the benchmark they hope to reach. That year had classic match ups that drew the biggest crowds to their TV's.


Rose Bowl:                 Texas vs. USC                                    35.63 million

Fiesta Bowl:               Ohio State vs. Notre Dame               20.60 million

Orange Bowl:             Penn State vs. Florida State             18.56 million

Sugar Bowl:               West Virginia vs. Georgia                  13.59 million

If they are going to reach their goal of matching the ratings of BCS championship games with the playoff semi-finals only the VIP's of college football need apply.