Football Drives ESPN to Weekly, Daily Ratings Records

After claiming its first ever full-year primetime crown in 2014, ESPN kicked off the 2015 Nielsen year in better fashion, earning the top weekly and most-watched day performances in its 35-year history.

Lifted by the record-setting results for the inaugural College Football Playoff semifinals -- the two largest audiences in cable history -- and its initial NFL playoff game, ESPN averaged 4.12 million watchers in total-day from Dec. 29, 2014 through Jan. 4, according to Nielsen data. In primetime, the worldwide leader averaged 8.72 million watchers.

The deliveries were fueled by the semifinals doubleheader on Jan. 1: ESPN's coverage of Ohio State's upset of top-ranked Alabama averaged 28.3 million watchers in the nightcap and became cable's all-time show, breaking the 28.2 million mark set hours before with its presentation of Oregon's demolition of defending champion Florida State. 

ESPN also benefited from its first NFL postseason game, as 21.7 million tuned in Carolina's Wild Card win over Arizona in the late afternoon window on Jan. 3. The telecast now ranks as the sports giant's eighth biggest overall and second-best with the pro football league. 

Starting with SportsCenter and continuing with College GameDay,  the 9.09 million who saw Michigan State's stirring comeback versus Baylor in the 2015 Cotton Bowl,  and the semifinals, ESPN averaged 11.7 million watchers,  making Jan. 1 the most-viewed day in its history.

On ESPN2, the Outback Bowl, featuring No. 18 Wisconsin defeating No. 19 Auburn in overtime, averaged a 3.8 rating and 6.4 million viewers in the noon window on New Year's Day, the most-ever for a telecast on the service. Wisconsin-Auburn is currently the seventh most-viewed bowl game of 2014-15 season.

To date,  ESPN's 33 bowl games this season averaged 5.4 million viewers, up 4% over last year.  Those numbers will rise with its coverage of the championship game between Oregon and Ohio State on Jan. 12, when the worldwide leader could establish another cable ratings record.