The early returns are in, and ESPN is boasting that last night’s telecast of Clemson’s dramatic 4th quarter rally to beat Alabama 35-31 was the most-watched event on a cable network since the 2016 championship game between the same two teams.
Almost 25 million watched the game on ESPN with another million or so tuned in to one of their megacast channels (ESPN’s Nielsen-rated networks (ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU) and streaming feeds ).
What they don’t bother to mention is that viewership continues to drop year-to-year since ESPN started broadcasting the CFB playoff three years ago.
That 25 million is down 25% from the 33.5 million that watched the initial championship game between Ohio State and Oregon.
We’ve already covered how the 40+ bowl game glut is a programming bonanza for ESPN, and well worth the 12-year contract they have for the CFB playoff. But that isn’t the endgame.
That’s a tough order. For several reasons. First the media venue. Thanks to cord cutters, ESPN is now in 88 million homes, down from a high over over 100 million just five years ago.
Secondly, College Football is still basically a regional sport. It has been the favorite of advertisers because it attracts upscale males 18-49 with deep school loyalties as well as an almost mythical view of the game they fell in love with as boys and have followed for decades.
So you have a declining viewing pool, with not as much “pull” with the casual sports fan as college administrators (and broadcast executives) would care to admit.
ESPN’s rise coincided with the fracture of the TV market place. They figured out a formula to make more (much more) out of smaller viewing audiences, by finding a niche and filling it with live action. Their main revenue stream doesn’t come from the number of viewers, but from the power to make cable companies pay a monthly fee of over $7 dollars to make sure live sporting events are available to those who want to watch.
In 1969 50% of all TV households tuned in on a Saturday afternoon to watch “The Game of the Century.” That meant that more than 50 million Americans were watching Texas defeat Arkansas 15-14.
Here is a list of the college football games that have had over 30 million viewers over the last 25 years.
- Texas-USC BCS Title game 2006 Rose Bowl 35.6 million.
- Ohio State-Oregon 2015 College Football Playoff championship 33.4 million
- Texas-Alabama BCS Title game 2010 Rose Bowl 30.8 million
- 1996 Rose Bowl, USC-Northwestern 30.4 million
- 1993 Sugar Bowl Alabama-Miami 30.1 million
- 1995 Orange Bowl Nebraska-Miami 30.0 million
There is a pattern in that list. There is at least one “brand” name in every game. One team that were elite teams decades ago, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s when TV first established a foothold in college football. We explored how DKR build the “Brand” during this era and how it is still paying dividends.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for the cable channels. Nielsen is about to throw ESPN (and others) a lifeline. The Ratings giant hopes to have Portable People Meters out in the field sometime in the next couple of years to add out of home viewers (such as bars, gyms, hotel rooms, etc) to the mix.
Early data indicates that as much as 40% of the sport channels viewership access their feed out of the home. ESPN is also exploring offering its “bundle” of networks over any and all platforms for a flat monthly fee.
It is safe to say they understand that the ground underneath their pot of gold is shifting and they are willing to look at any and all alternatives.
As for the next few years, if you don’t think that ESPN is praying that Tom Herman gets Texas back in the National Championship discussion, well, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Otherwise, they continue to hope that they have at least one Ohio State, Michigan or Alabama to line up in the National Championship game against a team that Bill Walton isn’t sure where they are located.