ESPN’s College Playoff Ratings Drop 36% on New Year’s Eve

Disney television networks ABC and ESPN dominated the New Year’s Eve ratings race, but viewership for the cable network’s college football semifinal games predictably tumbled on a night not typically reserved for marquee sports action. The Alphabet remained the clear late-night choice for ball-dropping festivities, and seemed to pick up some viewers from the lopsided pigskin contest between Alabama and Michigan State.

In Nielsen’s metered markets, the College Football Playoff games on ESPN averaged a 9.8 household rating — down a steep 36% from a 15.5 average last year when the games were played on New Year’s Day. Thursday’s contest between Clemson and Oklahoma, which began at a time when a chunk of the potential viewing audience in the Western part of the country was still at work, averaged a 9.7 from roughly 4:10-7:50 p.m. ET, and Michigan State-Alabama pulled a 9.9 from roughly 8:20-11:40 p.m. ET.

Neither of Thursday’s matchups was especially competitive in the second half, but the ratings results clearly suggest that many college football fans chose traditional New Year’s Eve festivities over watching the contests that decided who plays in the Jan. 11 championship contest on ESPN. The games earned monster ratings in participating markets Birmingham (48.1), Greenville (29.6), Oklahoma City (29.4) and Detroit (20.0), but may have fallen hard in some major markets without much of a rooting interest.

Total-viewer estimates are expected to be released by Nielsen in a few days. Last year’s semifinals averaged a little over 28 million viewers, and the championship game between Ohio State and Oregon averaged 33.4 million viewers on ESPN.

The network on Friday pointed to strong tune-in for its games on the Watch ESPN app, as Thursday’s semifinals added 313,000 average minute impressions to the TV audience, had 1.12 million unique viewers and more than 67 million minutes watched. Compared to last year’s New Year’s Day semifinals, this was up 67%, 29% and 58%, respectively.

This is the second of a 12-year, $5.6-billion deal for the College Football Playoffs on ESPN, which will see the semifinal games played on New Year’s Eve on seven more occasions. The contracts were negotiated primarily to keep the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl in their traditional Jan. 1 timeslots, and these games will serve as the semfinals every three years. ESPN reportedly fought against airing the semifinals on New Year’s Eve, but College Football Playoff execs figured the games would fare well wherever slotted.

Thursday’s tripleheader of action on ESPN, which included the Peach Bowl between Houston and Florida State earlier in the day, averaged a 7.7 overnight rating. This is a big increase over last year’s 4.3 average for the Dec. 31 tripleheader (Peach, Fiesta and Orange), though last year’s games, of course, weren’t nearly as high-profile.

As for the late-night New Year’s Eve celebrations across the networks, ABC led as usual with a 10.0 household rating/24 share from 11:30 p.m.-1:15 a.m. ET — down 7% from last year (10.7/25). NBC’s “New Year’s Eve with Carson Daly” averaged a 4.3/10 from 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (down about 10%), and Fox’s “Pitbull’s New Year’s Revolution” did a 3.1/7 from 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (up 19%).

In the 25 markets with local people meters, the ABC progam fared better relative to last year, with its 7.5 rating in adults 18-49 up 3% (from 7.3) and perhaps reflecting that it picked up some of the younger viewers switching over from college football. NBC and Fox both averaged a 2.7 in the demo, with the former down 12% from last year’s especially strong result (3.1) and the latter up 23% (from 2.2).

“New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” was promoted during the second half of the lopsided Michigan State-Alabama game on ESPN (the Crimson Tide won 38-0), with a bug in the upper right corner of the screen telling viewers in the Eastern time zone what musical acts were performing live over on ABC. That may have helped boost viewership for the 10-11 p.m. ET portion of “Rockin’ Eve,” whose preliminary average viewership of 13.1 million viewers was up from last year (12.9 million) and the second largest for the event since it began in 2000.

In preliminary adults 18-49 averages, “Rockin’ Eve” averaged a strong 3.9/14 from 10 to 11 p.m., up a tick over last year’s prelim and towering over NBC’s special “New Year’s Eve Game Night with Andy Cohen” (1.0/4 in 18-49, 3.8 million viewers overall). From 8 to 10 p.m., the primetime portion of Fox’s “Pitbull’s New Year’s Revolution” showed nice gains vs. last year, rising 29% in 18-49 rating (0.9 vs. 0.7) and 17% in total viewers (2.6 million vs. 2.2 million). The Fox program, up across the board in its second year, featured Miss Universe runner-up Miss Colombia, who was incorrectly named the winner by host Steve Harvey.

ABC was dominant in social media as well, according to Nielsen. A total of 3.5 million people in the U.S. saw one or more of the 529,000 tweets sent about “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” on Thursday.

The most tweeted-about minute occurred at 1:15 a.m. ET (4,155 tweets during the minute) as viewers reacted to a performance by 5 Seconds of Summer.

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  1. Should have been the Buckeyes for a more exciting game.

  2. Brad says:

    Just goes to show that ESPN’S attempt to completely take over college football will only be temporary. Eventually the sponsors will have to rethink their investments. I for one will learn to live without college bowl games until either the price of cable/satellite comes down or the sponsors go back to backing the original networks.

  3. Maria says:

    Happy New Year to all.

  4. Dennis says:

    NYE is never a good time to hold a playoff game.

    Must have been picked by Hillary Clinton.

  5. therealjonpalmer says:

    Hopefully, the morons that insisted on NYE games will wake up and smell the coffee. Let’s all hope that there is flexibility in the contract that was signed, so that the people running this thing can correct their mistake and we aren’t stuck with NYE playoffs 7 more times in the next 10 years.
    Lot’s of people were still at work for the first game–especially on the West coast. Lot’s of guys had to miss the second game because their wives/girlfriends made them go out to celebrate NYE. The combination of those two problems was bound to have a negative effect on the ratings.
    Bottom line–we are used to watching our big bowl games on NY day or later. What they should have done this year–with NYD being on a Friday–is have 3 of the (non-playoff) major bowls on Friday and the other 3 major bowls on Saturday, with the 2nd and 3rd game being the 2 playoff games. That would be when the most people would be able to be off work AND stay home to watch.
    The 2nd tier bowls that are on Friday and Saturday this year could have been spread out through the next week during prime time. There is no Monday night NFL since the regular season end Sunday. Filling that time with a bowl-like the Citrus, Gator or Outback–would be good business.

  6. Djstlawrence says:

    Anyone with a sliver of brain would have had the playoff games on Saturday.

  7. Mjkbk says:

    Was the entire game viewership down, from start to finish?

    Or did it drop off drastically in the North and the Northeast, for example, once Michigan State began its ZIPPO dominance over Alabama’s 45 points? ;-)

    Just wondering if there might be more behind a 36% ratings dropoff than a ‘simple’ lack of audience interest……

  8. Nicholas P. Schiavone says:

    Such changes in viewer interests and behavior are highly unusual and improbable under the circumstances. This reader wonders whether the Nielsen’s significant change in measurement techniques that started on Monday 12.28.15
    could be the cause of the reported decline.
    That’s called a methodological artifact and is unacceptable in research and business.
    Effective Monday, Nielsen started “modeling” (fabricating) and stopped tabulating (counting) approximately 40% of it viewing measurement.
    If Nielsen’s model is wrong (It is not accredited
    by the MRC!) then it’s viewing estimates will also be wrong. Disney doesn’t accept “modeled”
    Box Office earnings and ticket sales for “Star Wars.” It should not accept half-baked (60% tabulated) viewing estimates for ESPN and College Football! Disney should call for an investigation of the Nielsen System because there is more at stake here than College Football on New Year’s Eve. Imagine if the estimates were wrong throughout the entire New Year for all TV Networks, Channels and Stations. This us no way to start 2016. The TV Business is fraught enough. Measurement standards, analysis, audits and full public disclosure are warranted.

  9. Patrick says:

    Stupid move to New Year’s Eve for the semifinals. Some people were still at work for the first 2 games.

    • College Student says:

      Also stupid to have the games on ESPN when so many have cut cable.

      • therealjonpalmer says:

        I agree. I currently live in a rural area, too far from a city and too surrounded by mountains, to be able to get broadcast networks over the air. So, I am stuck needing cable.
        But, when I lived in a metropolitan area, where I could get all the broadcast networks and numerous non-network channels over the air, I didn’t spend money on cable. Especially since I was struggling at the time. I’m glad that at that time all the decent bowl games were on the network channels–not cable. I remember when my mother used to complain about the soaps being preempted for days because of bowl games during the holidays.
        There are a lot of people who can’t afford the price of cable. Especially now that it is way over $50 a month. Those people are getting deprived of more and more “must see” programming every year. College bowl games. Monday Night Football or Thursday Night Football–which stinks when it is your team and you don’t get to watch them that week. (I still have to miss my team if they play Thursday night since my cable system doesn’t carry NFL Network.) MLB teams moving their games off the local channels and onto cable. Awards shows. I could go on and on.
        It’s not fair to those that can’t afford cable. The MAJOR bowls (at least) should all be on broadcast networks.

      • Nicholas P. Schiavone says:

        It’s too bad you “college students” have not discovered Internet streaming or understand the economics of Broadcast & Cable TV. Time for an MBA!

      • Exactly, all the games are throttled to espnl poor attempt to improve the networks viewing numbers

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