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College Bowl Attendance & Ratings: Beauty Is In The Eye of The Beholder

And as far as ESPN is concerned the playoff bowl system is the prettiest girl on the block. 

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 31 CFP Semifinal - Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

40 bowl games down and one championship contest to go.

What do we have to show so far for the gluttony of the college bowl season? One really exciting game - Penn State vs. USC in the Rose Bowl. A bunch of nondescript Taxslayer/Poinsettia/Camellia/Potato/Belk Bowls. A drop of over 5% in overall attendance -- and one full month of cheap programming for ESPN.

Attendance has been dropping at a yearly rate of between 4%-5% for the bowls for the each of the last four seasons. Some Bowls saw drops over more than 10,000 fans between 2015 and 2016, and part of that can be explained away by the match ups. This years Citrus Bowl games between Louisville and LSU drew 16,500 fewer fans than last years game with Michigan vs. Florida.

But some of the older more established games are also feeling the pinch. The Sugar Bowl (OU vs. Auburn) drew just 54,077, the smallest crowd to witness the bowl game since 1939. The Cotton Bowl (Wisconsin vs. Western Michigan) had its smallest audience since 1998 (59,615).

But the bowl system isn’t about fans in the stands – it’s about fans on their couches.

ESPN is paying $5.6 billion over the life of a 12-year contract for the college football playoff, or about $470 million a year.

Last year the Power Five and Group of Five Conferences collected over $599 million in bowl payouts. The Big 10 took in $118 million, the Pac 12 garnered $105 million, the SEC took in $93 million, the ACC collected 84 million and the Big 12 gathered in 83 million.

ESPN broadcasts 38 of the 40 bowl games leading up to the championship contest. It is an extremely lucrative venture. So much so, that the network owns and operates 13 of those 38 bowl games. From December 17th through next Monday ESPN gets those games and all the peripheral programming that goes with it (bowl preview shows, College Football This Week, College Football Today, Sportscenter drop ins, etc).

Every one of those 38 bowl games drew an audience of at least 1 million.

On Friday December 23rd 1.4 million fans tuned in at 11:00 am to watch Old Dominion win their first bowl game ever, 24-20 over Eastern Michigan. (Mack Brown was on the call). That’s more than tuned in to watch such regular season games as Kansas State-Stanford, Cal-USC, Texas-Kansas State or Texas-Texas Tech.

As for the playoffs, the New Year’s Eve semi-final games this season were up by almost 3 million viewers compared to last season. The Alabama-Washington and Clemson-Ohio State games each drew a little over 19.2 million viewers. Of course last year New Years Eve fell on a workday and the games ran late, cutting into celebration time.

The CFB playoff committee insists that the semi-final games always be on New Years Eve – except in the years that the Rose and Sugar Bowls are the hosts. That’s because there would not be a playoff if it weren’t for a deal made with those two bowls.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Tournament of Roses - Pool/Getty Images

The Rose Bowl is the most influential partner in the playoff system. The game is a draw unlike any other bowl. During the BCS era is was always the most-watched non-championship bowl, and when it did host the championship game it set viewing records.

Of the Top Ten most watched games in the BCS Era, six of them were in the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl made it clear that it would not join the CFB playoff if it meant moving off their 4:00 pm New Years Day time slot.

Former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, spotting an opportunity, joined forces with the Rose Bowl and said the Sugar Bowl would demand its New Years night primetime slot. The two not only negotiated a permanent spot in the rotation, ESPN is paying each Bowl $80 million a year, above the play off payout.

As for the Championship contest, the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC remains the Gold Standard. Over 35.6 million viewers tuned in to that game. The first playoff championship game on ESPN, between Ohio State and Oregon drew 33.4 million and is still the most-watched contest ever on cable.

Last year’s Alabama win over Clemson had 25.7 million viewers, and how the rematch will fare this time around is anyone’s guess. But ESPN will get its moneys worth, as it contemplates its next move to explore different distribution platforms while trying to stay one step ahead of the cord cutters.