In the 2004 classic movie Dodgeball, one of the game commentators is from ESPN “The Ocho” — as in No. 8 — as a joke on the absurd number of ESPN offshoot networks.
These days, the joke is not far from the truth.
After ringing up overall audience gains and reaching more than 189 million viewers through its varied game telecasts in 2013-14, the ESPN family of networks stands poised to score more viewership gains with its expansive college football coverage during the upcoming campaign.
The family — ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNews, ABC, broadband portal ESPN, newcomer the SEC Network, Longhorn Network, ESPN Radio and highlight service Goal Line — will present more than 450 college football games in the 2014 regular season.
The worldwide leader, in the first season of a 12-year, $5.6 billion rights deal, will present the inaugural College Football Playoff, featuring a pair of semifinal contests with the winners meeting at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The package also includes the four bowl games that are part of the rotation to host the semifinals. As with its Bowl Championship Series predecessor, ESPN plans to air a playoff show on Sunday nights, starting in late October.
“This is the first time since the Super Bowl that a major sport has changed how it determines its champion,” Kurt Dargis, ESPN director of programming and acquisitions, said. “We’re very excited about the possibilities of the new system.”
Although Dargis won’t play Nielsen prognosticator, the playoff could have the potential to drive the largest audience in cable history, surpassing the 27 million who watched Auburn top Oregon in the 2011 BCS national championship game.
For those keeping score, the 2014 BCS title game, in which Florida State topped Auburn in the final moments drew 25.5 million viewers, the third-biggest audience in cable history.
Last season, ESPN averaged 2.66 million viewers per game, up 3% from 2.56 million from the prior season. ESPN2 grew 8% to 1.11 million per game from 1.02 million, while ESPNU was ahead 4% to 400,000 from 385,000.
The gains came despite increased games from Fox, which brought then-freshman Fox Sports 1 into the game for first time, and CBS, which sports the top-rated SEC broadcast package, and flanks those with other games on sister service, CBS Sports Network. NBC, Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Networks and regional sports networks are also in the mix.
Dargis said he and his colleagues begin working on the schedule in the spring and throughout the summer, calculating possible scenarios based on matchups within ESPN’s vast rights holdings and those in which it is engaged in a selection process, like CBS with the SEC, and Fox with the Pac-12 and Big 12.
Dargis said one of the benefits of ESPN controlling so much inventory is that it can “move games around based on storylines to better platforms.” Conversely, if a team isn’t performing as expected, scheduling can also be adjusted.
Upcoming scheduling vagaries aside, Dargis said he is certain of one thing: “After all the work we’ve put in during the offseason, we’re anxious to get the balls in the air and show some good games.”
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