Buyers Optimistic About New Year’s Day College Football Playoff Viewership

This season’s two College Football Playoff semifinal games are being played on New Year’s Day rather than on New Year’s Eve as they have for the past two seasons and that has media buyers and ESPN sales executives smiling.

At worst, ratings should top those of the past two years, and at best, they could get close to the more than 50 million viewers the two semifinal games drew on New Year’s Day three years ago.

Those two New Year’s Day semifinals drew a combined 56.5 million TV viewers on Jan. 1, 2015, compared to the combined 34.2 million and 39.4 million who watched the past two years when the games were on New Year’s Eve.

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With pretty much no one working, and no one heading out to New Year’s Eve parties, New Year’s Day is the ideal time to draw the most possible college football fans to their TV sets. When they are pretty much at home sitting on their couches.

“In an ideal world, these two semifinal national championship playoff games would always be played on New Year’s Day,” said one media buyer for some major advertisers, “but that’s not going to happen.”

It’s not going to happen because the Rose Bowl, which is hosting the 5 p.m. semifinal game that will be televised on ESPN sibling network ABC this New Year’s Day, has refused to move out of that time period. So a CFP semifinal game can only be played once every three years on New Year’s Day.

However, optimism is high for this season’s two semifinal telecasts. Leading out of the 5 p.m. Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual, which pits #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Georgia, will be the 8:45 p.m. Allstate Sugar Bowl on ESPN featuring #1 Clemson, the defending national champion, vs. #4 Alabama. And that game will be a rematch between the two teams that met in last season’s championship game.

Commercial time for 30-second spots in each of the semifinal games have cost advertisers about $750,000 a pop, with spots in the Jan. 8 national championship game going for about $1.2 million per unit.

ESPN, which over guaranteed ratings for the two semifinal games on New Year’s Eve in 2015 and wound up owing about $20 million in makegoods to advertisers, toned down the guarantees last year and ratings were closer to guarantees.

This time around they did increase guarantee levels a bit to get more money per ad unit, but to nowhere near the 56.5 million 2015 TV audience levels.

“The ratings guarantees are higher for the semifinals this year than the past two years,” one buyer said, “but not nearly as much as three years ago.”

And Ed Erhardt, president of global sales and marketing for ESPN, said, “Our overall rating guarantees [for all bowl games ESPN is televising] are comparable to last year, but we did bump up the semifinal ratings guarantees a little bit because the games are on New Year’s Day this year.”

Buyers said ESPN guarantees and pricing was fair. “There was no panic, no fire sales,” said one buyer. “But it did seem like ESPN was willing to work with us. There was not much pushback in the negotiations. And negotiations were smooth.”

And there is the possibility that these two games can draw significantly more viewers than the two semifinal games last year televised on New Year’s Eve.

Alabama and Clemson drew 26 million viewers in last year’s national championship game and they are meeting in this year’s semifinal. That rematch should draw well more than the 19.6 million last season’s late semifinal game drew. That was a one-sided 31-0 victory by Clemson over Ohio State.

Heading into this weekend, Erhardt said both semis and the championship game on Jan. 8 are pretty much sold out, but ESPN has held back a handful of units for advertisers who want to come in at the last minute. Especially for the championship game where some advertisers want to wait and see who the two final teams are.

Both Erhardt and media buyers are optimistic that the two semifinal games could exceed expectations and ratings guarantees. While a network never likes to under guarantee and leave money on the table, larger than anticipated ratings would be a nice plug for ESPN, which so far has had a successful bowl telecast month.

Through its first 20 college bowl telecasts – 18 on ESPN and two on ABC – viewership is up 12% compared to last season’s first 20 games on the ESPN networks, according to Nielsen data. This year the bowl games are averaging 2.24 million viewers vs. 2 million last season.

ESPN also crowed that it televised the two highest-rated college football bowl games on Wednesday, Dec. 27, “notably beating Fox head-to-head in primetime.” ESPN’s airing of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl featuring Iowa vs. Boston College delivered a 2.3 overnight rating. And its telecast of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl game between Missouri and Texas drew a 2.1 overnight rating. Both games drew larger audiences than did Fox’s primetime telecast of the Foster Farms Bowl.

ESPN has also televised the six highest-rated bowl games across all networks so far this bowl season. But obviously the biggest games are the games with national championship implications.

Erhardt said ESPN’s solid bowl game ratings are in part due to Nielsen now counting streaming viewership as part of its regular sports ratings. “Nielsen is now capturing the people they weren’t capturing before in their ratings measurement,” Erhardt said. Including people watching ESPN streaming telecasts on sites such as Hulu, YouTube, Sling and Sony Playstation, among others.

Last year some 710,000 streaming viewers watched the national championship game and that number is expected to grow significantly this year.

Erhardt said to make it easier for Nielsen to measure streaming viewers, ESPN has watermarked all of its telecasts so they will be sure not to miss them. “There isn’t an impression that is not getting reported,” he said. That, in turn, has helped boost ESPN’s ratings across the board.

Erhardt said there is a group of new advertisers planning to run spots in the semifinals or national championship bowl game but he declined to identify them. He said there are also some advertisers planning to break new creative during the telecasts.

He said while ESPN ran 6-second ad spots for YouTube in its Christmas Day bowl game telecasts, there are no plans for any 6-second ads in the playoff semifinals or championship game. “But we have lots of other types of ad integrations in those games,” he said.

There is a greater influx of tech category advertisers in the semifinal telecasts, along with direct response, ecommerce type advertisers. Erhardt calls them “new economy” type advertisers. Other strong categories are automotive, quick service restaurants and pharmaceuticals.

While this year’s semifinals will be played on New Year’s Day, they won’t be again until Jan. 1, 2021. Next season they will be played Saturday, Dec. 29 and the year after that on Dec. 28. But the College Football Playoff committee seemingly learned its lesson that New Year’s Eve was just not a good time to get a real mass audience to watch college football.

And ESPN and its advertisers are grateful.

“Playing the games on New Year’s Day took the noise out of any types of concerns by advertisers,” Erhardt said.

And a media buyer added, “These bowl games should be a CFP bounce back for both ESPN and the advertisers.”