After Last New Year’s Eve Fumble, Buyers Warm to College Football Semis

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, media buyers and their marketing clients were not happy that the two College Football Playoff semifinal games were being televised on a New Year’s Eve, which fell on a Friday on top of everything. Plain and simple, there was a lot of angst both by the ad buying community and ESPN, which had no control over the day or start times of the games.

This year, the mood has dramatically improved.

The playoff semifinals will again be played on New Year’s Eve this year, however, the games will be on a Saturday and each will start one hour earlier than in 2015.

The bowl committee, ESPN and media agency buyers and their advertiser clients are optimistic that this year’s two semi-final games—No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl—will perform a lot better. For one thing, most people will be off from work Saturday, and the earlier kickoffs will help overcome last year’s ratings disaster. Additional confusion was caused by aggressive promotion of both Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest on ABC and the college football doubleheader on ESPN, which wound up overlapping.

Related: Nielsen: Affluent College Football Fans Attractive to Luxury Brands

Last year’s two semifinal games were played on New Year’s Eve, which fell on a weekday with start times of the games at around 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. The start time of the first game resulted in many potential viewers on the East Coast, in particular, not yet home from work. The second game lasted beyond 10:30 p.m. when most revelers were well-imbibed and tuning in to the New Year’s entertainment shows. The late game also turned out to be a blowout, with Alabama defeating Michigan State 38-0, so tune-out happened early, further depressing ratings.

As a result, the ratings of the two games combined were 36% lower than the two semifinals the year before which were played on New Year’s Day, when no one worked and everyone was home recuperating from their partying the night before.

But sports media buyers and their clients have short memories and are believing that earlier start times on a Saturday, regardless of whether it’s New Year’s Eve, will draw significantly more viewers to their TV sets.

“I think the viewership will be better than last year and playing them on a Saturday will help,” says one media buyer of a major advertiser. “People are used to watching college football on Saturdays. And moving up the start times will make a difference, especially for the late game. Our research has found that New Year’s Eve football ratings tend to fall off the cliff by about 10:30 p.m. and it will be good if the game is just about done by then.” Unless it’s a nail-biter and viewers are hooked.

The price for a unit in this year’s semi-finals is in the $1.2 million range for those advertisers buying in scatter—or at least that’s been the asking price by ESPN. That’s up from the $1 million price tag from last year, but buyers say that price is fair given the reach to a mass male audience. “It’s always good when you can reach the younger, elusive males in live programming and also get a good amount of women too,” one buyer says.

Of course they’d like viewership for the semifinal games to be closer to the ones played two years ago on New Year’s Day vs. the pair played last year on New Year’s Eve.

Related: Advertisers Not Fazed By NFL Ratings Declines

Two years ago, the semi-finals combined averaged around 28.2 million viewers. Last year, that fell to about 17.1 million, with the early game drawing 15.6 million and the late game 18.6 million.

Buyers have also praised ESPN for coming to the marketplace with lower ratings guarantees for the games—a logical move based on last year’s ratings shortfalls that resulted in some $20 million in makegoods being doled out but most sports networks still try to take hard lines when negotiating guarantees.

In the bigger picture of college football’s TV evolution, it’s worth recalling that the four-team playoff that determines the national champion has existed only since 2015. For decades, the sport’s annual ritual was a set of bowl games played on New Year’s Day, with polls unscientifically determining the top team. From 1998 to 2014, the Bowl Championship Series, a rotating system that elevated a single bowl game above the others in an effort to crown a clear champion, nudged the title action from Jan. 1 into mid-January.

While not offering a ratings guarantee number for the semi-final games, one buyer says ESPN “took the lower ratings from last year into account. The guarantee levels we got are not as high as they were going into last year’s games. They recognized they had to bring the guarantees down and they came to us in a pretty decent place – with a pretty decent number. We didn’t have to negotiate back-and-forth very much.”

Eric Johnson, executive VP of global multimedia sales for ESPN’s Customer Marketing and Sales Group, agrees that negotiations for this year’s semi-finals and championship game have been “smooth and non-combative.”

“We did get some price increases,” he says without being specific, but adds, “as for guarantees, we adjusted them to come up with a number based on both two years ago and last year’s game. We believe we set ourselves up for a good ratings story this time.”

Related: Audiences Flee Late Night, But Advertisers Stay Tuned

Buyers say pricing did vary some from client to client since some are sponsors with multi-year deals and others have bought packages for all 40-plus televised bowls. So there were some discounts involved. Another buyer says bowl sponsors have commitments to buy two-to-four units in each of the multitude of bowls and rates for the non-playoff bowls vary.

ESPN worked together with the CFP committee to move up the starting times and Johnson says, “We believe that will help bring in more viewers, and particularly help viewers on the East Coast watch the second game in its entirety before they start their New Year’s Eve celebrating in earnest.”

Movie studios were most annoyed at last year’s ratings shortfalls because they are dependent on immediate response to their ads and delayed makegoods do them less good.

However, ESPN’s Johnson says movie studios are in this year’s semi-finals and final game in a big way. “Movie studios and technology are the two biggest ad growth categories among scatter ad buyers for the games,” he says.

And Johnson says ESPN has encouraged marketers in this year’s game telecasts to break new creative campaigns. “We want advertisers to think of these games as a great place to break new creative campaigns and see it as an opportunity to do it in front of a mass audience. We sold it as being a great reach vehicle.”

As of Monday morning, there were still some ad avails left for both semifinals and the national championship game on Jan. 9. The buy side placed the sellout level at around 90%. While Johnson would not comment on a specific sellout level number, sources familiar with ad sales say the number is closer to 95% which would be on par with last year.

Johnson says ad sales are slightly ahead of last year. “We are better sold than last year at this time,” he says. “We do have some unit lefts but we always want to hold a few. We will be sold out by the opening kickoffs of each game.”

ABC is again televising its Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with RyanSeacrest show in primetime from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., with the Times Square ball drop to follow. It’s the 45th year that ABC is televising its New Year’s Eve entertainment special at some point during the night. And both Disney-owned networks are again each promoting each other’s New Year’s Eve primetime telecasts.

Last year because it was the first time the CFP semi-final games were being televised on New Year’s Eve, ESPN created special promotional spots starring Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC’s late night show, urging viewers to tune into the college games on ESPN. That angered some folks at ABC who didn’t want the games to draw away viewers from the Rockin’ Eve special.

However there was angst for naught as the ratings for Rockin’ Eve in primetime were actually up a tenth of a rating point in the advertiser-desired 18-49 demo, while the football ratings suffered despite the Kimmel promo spots.

This year, the networks are both promoting and cross-promoting their respective primetime programming, but ESPN is not using ABC talent.

ABC is running spots across its network promoting the New Year’s Eve CFP games, while ESPN is running spots promoting ABC’s Rockin’ Eve show. Both networks are owned by Disney and both have programming on that night that brings in large amounts of ad revenue so it is in Disney’s interest for both to draw sizable audiences.

ESPN talent, including college play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler, analyst Jesse Palmer and sideline reporter Sam Ponder have made appearances on live ABC shows like The Chew, Good Morning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live to talk up the playoff matchups and promote the game telecasts.

The entire New Year’s Eve ratings issue has been the result of the Rose and Sugar Bowls refusing to move their New Year’s Day games to other days during the years they do not have the CFP semifinal games. The games are rotated among six bowls. So the semifinal games cannot be played on New Year’s Day, except every third year when the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl have their turn at the semi-final games.

The CFP committee, working with ESPN, did do some schedule juggling to keep the semifinal games from being played and televised going forward on New Year’s Eve weekdays through the 2020 season. Next season, the 2017-18 season’s CFP semis will be played on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. The following season, they will be played and televised on Dec. 29, the year after that on Dec. 28 and then on New Year’s Day in the Rose and Sugar Bowls for the 2020-21 season.

As for the diminished anxiety level among clients and their agencies compared with last year, one buyer says, “we’ll still get ratings that are higher than on most other nights on television for each of the games. And we do have guarantees so if there is any angst it would be with ESPN.”