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ESPN Scores Top Audiences in Cable History with Semis

The inaugural College Football Playoff system exploded on the Nielsen scene New Year’s Day, with the first semifinal becoming the largest telecast in cable history, before being supplanted by the second contest.

ESPN registered a 14.8 rating translating into 28.16 million viewers with its coverage of Oregon’s 59-20 romp of defending champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl, according to Nielsen data.

The Ducks’ demolition that ended the Seminoles’ 29-game winning streak overtook the BCS title game won by Auburn over Oregon on Jan. 10, 2011. The 27.3 million watchers for that contest had stood as the largest audience in cable TV history until yesterday.

Oregon-FSU’s reign was much shorter-lived.  The worldwide leader garnered a 15.2 rating and 28.27 million viewers for the second game of the doubleheader, as Ohio State upset top-ranked Alabama, 42-35 (pictured).

Both games generated significant increases over the ESPN bowl games in their respective Jan. 1, 2014 time slots: a 51% audience ascent from 18.6 million for last year’s Rose Bowl and a 150% surge from 11.3 million for the 2014 Sugar Bowl. The ratings rose 45% from a 10.2 and 130% from a 6.6, respectively.

“These record-setting numbers illustrate the enormous fan interest in college football and the wide-ranging appeal of the new College Football Playoff format,” said John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, programming and production. “We are excited to build upon this success when we showcase the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship on ESPN on January 12.”

On the digital side,  the College Football Playoff semifinal games logged an average of 864,000 unique viewers on WatchESPN, 42.4 million minutes viewed and an average minute audience of 187,000 per game – up 185%, 124% and 119%, respectively, compared to last year’s games in the time slots.

Ohio State-Alabama was the best Sugar Bowl ever across all metrics – 912,000 unique viewers (up 164% versus last year’s Sugar Bowl), 58.7 million minutes viewed (ahead 173 %) and an average minute audience of 256,000  (181% growth). The Sugar Bowl now ranks as the best college football game ever on WatchESPN based on unique viewers and minutes viewed. 

Despite technical issues during the first half of Oregon-Florida State, WatchESPN recorded its best Rose Bowl ever based on unique viewers, a 212% gain to  816,000,; second best ever with minutes viewed, 26.2 million, up 59%; and average minute audience a 47% jump to 116,000.

The average New Year’s Six game live on WatchESPN attracted 505,000 unique viewers, 26.2 million minutes viewed and an average minute audience of 118,000 – up 229%, 214% and 198%, respectively, compared to the same dates last year.  Compared to the four non-championship BCS games last year, the average New Year’s Six game grew 85% among unique viewers, 55% in minutes viewed and 57% in average minute audience.

The New Year’s Six – the six bowl games, three on New Year’s Eve and three on New Year’s Day, that are part of the new College Football Playoff – posted an increase of 78% in viewership compared to the same six time slots last year.  The six contests averaged 14.7 million viewers, up from 8.27 million. 

In addition to the two semifinals, ESPN's presentation of the New Year’s Day’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic  -- Michigan State's 42-41 win over Baylor in the waning seconds -- at 12:30 p.m. increased viewership for the time slot 67% to 9.09 million from 5.44 million.  The rating rose 63% to 5.2 from 3.2.