The inaugural College Football Playoff was a resounding ratings success, with last night’s championship game capping off a record-breaking three-game run.
The first College Football Playoff National Championship set an ESPN and cable TV record, scoring an 18.5 rating with approximately 35 million viewers tuning in to see Ohio State defeat Oregon, 42-20. That’s a full two points higher than ESPN’s previous best for a title game, the 2011 BCS Championship (16.1).
The staggering numbers from the matchup in Dallas were somewhat expected considering the success of the semifinals Jan. 1. Each game attracted more than 28 million viewers, surpassing all previous marks in the BCS era, including last year’s 26 million and 2011’s record 27.3 million for BCS championship games.
The question now is whether these numbers are sustainable. The semifinals were almost certainly aided by their prime placement on New Year’s Day, making them viewer-friendly for casual fans. However, next year’s semifinals will be on New Year’s Eve due to contractual obligations with the Rose and Sugar Bowls, something that may negatively impact TV viewership.
The games were also probably aided by interest in the first year of the CFP experiment, and it’s conceivable – though not likely – that some of the allure may wear off. However, should the CFP increase to an eight-team format, the appeal could rise along with the stakes of playoff games and end-of-season and conference championship matchups that determine playoff placement, a phenomenon The Fields of Green recently outlined should the NFL expand its own playoffs.
Bowl season was a success for non-CFP games as well: ESPN’s non-CFP bowls averaged a 3.4 rating compared to last season’s 3.2. However, the bump in ratings was accompanied by a decrease in attendance, a concerning trend that has affected college football throughout the season. The numbers will also impact sponsors, especially Dr. Pepper, easily college football’s biggest postseason partner. High ratings will mean activations in future playoffs will increase in value.
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