Last year the college football semifinals blew up the cable TV ratings book.
This year the penultimate games of the college football season dropped like a rock, losing almost 40% of last year's audience -- and ESPN can thank former SEC commissioner Mike Slive for a large part of the audience loss, one that could happen 2 out of every 3 years.
Last season the two semi-final contests averaged over 28 million viewers each, setting a cable record that would be broken by the Ohio State-Oregon National Championship contest a week later (33 million viewers).
Early ratings returns this year show 18,500,000 tuned in to Alabama's boat racing Michigan State. Preliminary numbers for the Clemson-OU game estimate the viewing audience at 15,600,000
Granted there are several valid reasons for the audience drop, but moving the games to New Year's Eve is a big one, and it is one that could have been avoided.
It basically comes down to the "First Among Equals" in the New Years Six Bowls. The three-game championship round robin is rotated annually between the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta Bowls. The natural assumption was that whoever had the semifinal games would have the prime slots on New Year's Day.
Makes sense, assuming the playoff system was designed to highlight, you know the playoffs, which they are, sort of.
The Power Five conferences wanted a playoff system as long as it didn't interfere with the lucrative (and expanding) bowl system. The Rose Bowl is the biggest SOB in the Bowl System Valley, and when the CFP contract was negotiated the Rose Bowl got the 4:00 PM central time slot guaranteed for every Jan.1.
Like it or not, the Rose Bowl is the biggest money maker -- and biggest draw of all the college bowls every year -- with the obvious exception of the playoff games.
The 2011 Rose Bowl featured TCU vs. Wisconsin, hardly a dream match up. It was also the first time the game was shown on cable. It still drew 20,500,000 viewers, second only to the BCS championship game. The Rose Bowl has always drawn more casual college football fans than any other game.
Still, the semifinals could have been slotted with the Rose Bowl to make a tripleheader on New Year's Day. That's where Slive and the SEC stepped in, with the help of the Big 12.
The Sugar Bowl started in 1935 and while they usually took at SEC team, the alliance was only formalized in 1975.
Remember the big announcement back in 2012, where the Sugar Bowl touted an SEC-Big 12 matchup for the Bowl? The announcement trumpeted the game as a "Conference Championship Matchup."
The champions of the two conferences will be in the matchup unless one or both are selected to play in the new four-team model to determine the national championship. Should that occur, another deserving team from the conference(s) will be selected for the game.
Yeah, the odds of both conference champions being available for that game are the same as Jessica Alba calling me up to ask me if I am free Friday night.
The CFP system granted the Sugar Bowl the primetime slot on New Years Day permanently, which this year means a prime time slot for a contest between the 4th best team in the Big 12 and the 2nd best team in the SEC.
You could just make the Rose and Sugar bowls the hosts for the semifinals yearly, but that would cut the other four "New Years Six" bowls out of the financial bonanza of hosts one of the semifinals.
ESPN tried to work out a compromise. Today, Jan. 2 was wide open. The NFL scheduled all of its games for Sunday Jan.3. Why not move the semifinals to Saturday, where the potential audience is larger than on New Year's Eve.
The Power Five said thanks, but no thanks. ABC/ESPN did the next best thing: doing their damnedest to pitch this schedule as the new college football tradition.
There are obviously other factors in the lower audiences for the semifinal contests. The Alabama-Michigan State game was ablowout. I come from a Burnt Orange/Go Blue family, and was interested in how Michigan State would hold up. When Alabama kicked a field goal late in the 2nd quarter to take a 10-0 lead, I turned it off.
The Clemson-Oklahoma contest kicked off at 1:00PM pacific time, an audience killer for a game with two teams with no real connection to all the TV sets out West. Now my Golden Rule for College Football is: "There is Never A Good Time For OU to Win," so for me, hanging on for every play was all good.
The current CFP contract calls for the semifinals to be played on New Year's Eve 7 out of the next 10 years. Bill Hancock, the director of the College Football Playoff system, commented to AP on Friday after the early ratings were in.
"It's just not appropriate to talk until all the results are in. I guess it's like asking a coach to talk about a whole game at halftime," he said.
I'm guessing that ESPN will have a halftime speech for the CFP committee when they meet later this year.
As we near the National Championship Game a week from Monday, we will have a post on the history of the expansion and devaluing of College Bowls.