ESPN College Football Buyers Near Title Game With No New Year's Hangover

ESPN is celebrating the New Year despite two lopsided semifinal games in the College Football Playoffs. The network owes very few ad makegoods for its New Year’s Eve telecasts.

The good times stand in stark contrast with last year, when the cable sports network was on the hook for some $20 million in ad makegoods following steep ratings shortfalls for the two semifinal games, also televised on New Year’s Eve. It is the third season of the four-team playoffs, which replaced the Bowl Championship Series, a computer-formula-dictated postseason system.

Viewership for the two playoff games combined this past Dec. 31 was up 12.5% over the prior year, but that alone wasn’t enough to offset makegoods. Supplementing the semifinal bowl ratings increases was strong viewership of the Orange Bowl (Dec. 30) and Rose Bowl (Jan.1), in particular, that pushed clients who bought packages of the major bowl games past the guarantees that ESPN had set. USC's last-second 52-49 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl and Florida State's 33-32 thriller over Michigan top many fans' lists of the best action in bowl season, and neither was officially part of the playoffs.

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And also give credit to ESPN for lowering its viewer guarantees by between 15% and 20% from last year, which also helped clients reach their guaranteed viewership levels. ESPN last year had set those guarantee levels extra high based on the record-setting viewership of the semifinal games the year before which were played on New Year’s Day.

Media buyers say the two semifinal bowls—despite drawing 38.5 million combined viewers compared with 34.2 million last year—still fell about 7%-8% short of guarantees. So scatter buyers for just those two games will be owed some makegood ad dollars. However, each makegood amount owed is way less than one of the $1 million ad units. And a large portion of the major advertisers had units in the other major bowl games that significantly overdelivered so they are actually much ahead of guarantees.

“The Orange Bowl viewership was about 200% more than what was guaranteed and the Rose Bowl was about 15% higher,” says one major media buyer. “So our clients are well ahead of guarantees.” One buyer says multiple bowl ad clients heading into the Monday, Jan. 9 national championship bowl game on ESPN are at least low double-digit percentages ahead of their guarantees.

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“If you bought packages you are in great shape,”one buyer says. “Especially if you also had multiple units in the Orange and Rose Bowl telecasts. Those bowls helped with viewership guarantees considerably. If they didn’t do well, ESPN would be in a much worse place. But they ended up in a lot better shape than they were last year at this time. And all of our clients are very happy.”

An ESPN spokesperson said the network’s policy is not to comment on ratings or guarantees, but added that the network is looking forward to the national championship bowl telecast on Monday night.

ESPN had hoped that televising the two semifinal games on a New Year’s Eve Saturday instead of a New Year’s Eve weekday would help boost viewership. It also hoped that moving the start times up to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. vs. 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. would make a difference.

It did for the early game but not the late game. The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl matchup between Alabama and Washington, despite being a comfortable 24-7 win by Alabama, averaged 19.3 million fans, up 23% from last year’s early game which averaged 15.6 million. The late game PlayStation Fiesta Bowl matchup between Ohio State and Clemson was a 38-0 blowout, similar to last year’s game. Viewership reached 19.2 million but that was just 3% higher than last year’s 18.6 million.

Combined this year’s two semifinal games drew 38.5 million viewers, compared to last year’s 34.2 million, an increase of 12.5%.

The Capital One Orange Bowl, played on Dec. 30 between Michigan and Florida State, drew 11.7 million viewers and buyers say that total was about 200% higher than what ESPN guaranteed for the Friday night contest. The Rose Bowl, played on New Year’s Day between USC and Penn State, averaged 15.7 million viewers, up 17% over last year’s Rose Bowl and about 15% higher than what ESPN guaranteed. The Sugar Bowl, also played on New Year’s Day averaged 9.5 million viewers, but buyers say that fell a bit short of ESPN guarantees although it was still a solid number.

The two semifinal games will not be played again on New Year’s Eve until the 2021-22 season. Next season the two games will be played on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl.

The national championship game on Jan. 9 is just about sold out and buyers and their clients are optimistic that this year’s rematch between Alabama and Clemson will be a good viewer draw.

Alabama defeated Clemson in last year’s game that drew 25.7 million viewers on ESPN, down 23% from the previous year’s national championship game which drew a record 33.4 million. If ESPN reduced guarantees for this game also between 15%-20%, the network may have a good shot at getting through it with no significant makegoods.

Networks, of course, never want to leave ad dollars on the table. So setting guarantees too low and allowing for overdelivery can be a good thing for advertisers but not for the networks. The goal of guarantees is to get as close as possible to what the actual viewership will be.

Sometimes, however, the networks get greedy, as was the case of ESPN last year which set its semifinal and final game guarantees based on the record-setting levels of the previous year. That proved to be way high and the network had to dole out millions in makegoods.

This season, it seems, the lesson was learned, barring a viewer meltdown for the championship game.

“ESPN clearly didn’t want to end up in a situation like they did last year,” says one media buyer. “And they haven’t so far.”

Buyers are still not happy that any meaningful college football postseason is played on New Year’s Eve, when most people have partying outside the home on their minds rather than sitting in front of TVs for hours. But that’s out of ESPN’s control, even though it is paying the NCAA big bucks for the right to televise the bowl championship games.

Related: Advertisers Not Fazed By NFL Ratings Declines

“Everyone would rather have these games played on New Year’s Day every year, but that’s not going to happen,” a buyer says.

That’s because, as has been widely reported, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, who make up two of the six bowls that are part of the College Football Playoff process, have refused to move from New Year’s Day. And the NCAA has refused to pressure them to do so. So the semifinal games can only be played on New Year’s Day every third year.

Next year it’s their turn to host the games, but in the two following years, instead of the games being played on New Year’s Eve, they will be played on Dec. 29 and Dec. 28, respectively.

New Year’s Eve is not a dead zone for every TV program, it's worth noting. ABC’s Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest has done well on the night, including this most recent edition.

The primetime portion of the show, which aired from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. and competed with the late bowl game on ESPN, averaged 8.3 million viewers and a solid 2.4 18-49 demo rating. Between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Rockin' Eve averaged 11.6 million viewers and a 3.6 demo rating. It was ABC’s top non-sports Saturday night in viewership in five years.

After a break for local news, the 11:30 p.m. to 12:38 a.m. segment averaged 20.3 million viewers and a 6.5 rating among adults 18-49. Its segment from 1:09 a.m. to 2:07 a.m. averaged 7.2 million viewers and a 2.5 18-49 demo rating.