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Alabama-Clemson TV Ratings: Classic Good News, Bad News

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Lots of people tuned in to ESPN to watch Alabama get its 4th national title in 7 years – just not as many as hoped.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Monday's College Football Championship game had a lot going for it. Nick Saban and Alabama chasing history. Clemson looking to be the first team to go 15-0 in FBS history. And the game lived up to its billing.

The TV Ratings ?   Not so much.

ESPN reports that 26.2 million fans tuned into their multiple channel presentation of the championship game, with 25.7 million watching the main broadcast on the Mother Ship. Those numbers are good enough to rank it among the Top 8 shows all-time on cable, and yet still be a drop of almost 7 million from the 33.4 million that watched last year's inaugural championship contest.

This came on the heels of a precipitous drop in the ratings for the semi-finals, thanks in large part to officials insistence that they be played on New Year's Eve.

For ESPN, the three-game championship series compares to this years TCU football team. Nice year, Top Ten finish - still disappointing based on pre-season expectations.

The College Football Playoff averaged 19.7 million viewers a game for ESPN - compared to 29.8 million last year. All three games were down double-digits, but they are all three still in the Top Ten of most-watched games in cable history.

The semi-finals dropped almost 12 million viewers from one year to the next, or 40% of the original audience. Several factors can be pointed to the drop: two blow outs, teams that are not "national" draws (Clemson, Michigan State) and of course the demand from the CFP committee that the games be played on New Year's Eve.

Advertisers looked at those ratings called up the sales staff at ESPN and got $20 million in "makegoods."

Any media buyer worth his weight in free lunches has a "makegood" clause in a media sales contract that covers major events. ESPN sets its commercial rates based on their estimate of audience ratings. It is safe to say that ESPN did not set their ad rate at almost $1 million per: 30-second spot with the expectations that the audience would drop by 12 million each in the semi finals.

At first glance that creates a big financial hit for ESPN. But there were several ways for the sales department to handle the $20 million shortfall.  ESPN probably held back a few spots in the NFL wild card game they carried. The Kansas City-Houston contest pulled in 25 million viewers, much closer to last year's college games.

ESPN also sells almost 50% of their advertising for the CFP in packages - all three games - and that helped. No doubt there were also a few spots in the championship game available for makegoods. We probably didn't see as many promos for other ESPN or ABC properties as we would have normally.

Next year the semifinals will be on New Year Eve's Saturday. That should help their early contest (not a workday) but the evening game will have the same problem of going up against NYE festivities.

ESPN can thank itself for helping to put into place this maddening demand that the Rose and Sugar Bowls keep their New Year's Day spots in the bowl lineup.

The cable giant is shelling out $600 million a year for the rights to the championship game and the "New Year's Six," the bowl games that take turns hosting the semifinals.

But during the negotiations for the championship series, ESPN also caved in to the SEC (and in part the Big 12) over the Sugar Bowl. ESPN is paying the two leagues $80 million per year for the Sugar Bowl, guaranteeing the prime time slot on New Year's Day, despite the fact that the idea of matching the two league champions in that bowl is laughable.

During those negotiations, the Rose Bowl made it clear that they were not moving off their mid-afternoon time slot on New Year's, even on the years they were not hosting a semi-final. They could do so because of a century of historical significance (and massive ratings). During the BCS era, the Rose Bowl was always the most-watched bowl game - outside of the Championship contest. Even this year with a lousy game (Stanford-Iowa) the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game out of the 38 non-championship series bowls to crack 10 million viewers (13.6 million).

When SEC commissioner Mike Slive saw that the CFP was inevitability, he leveraged the power of his league to make sure the Sugar Bowl was part of the New Year's Day lineup. Before the BCS, the Sugar Bowl had been played on Jan. 1 just twice in 11 years.

This year's Sugar Bowl between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State drew 8.9 million viewers, making it the lowest-rated New Year's primetime bowl game since the inception of the BCS.

We won't see the CFP semifinals on a workday New Year's Eve until Dec. 31, 2018. That is a Monday, and both the CFP and ESPN are hoping that it will be a 4-day weekend for most workers.

In the meantime, college playoff officials will continue to promote the "new tradition" of college football on New Year's Eve, and advertisers will warily eye just how many fans are willing to buy into that idea.