The results are in, and while most people who weren’t among college football’s dealmakers (or otherwise employed in the sports media industry) expected large declines for the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve, blowouts resulted in the declines being bigger than pretty much anyone expected. The Cotton Bowl between Michigan State and Alabama drew 18.552 million viewers, while the Oklahoma-Clemson Orange Bowl drew 15.640 million. After last year’s semifinals topped all four BCS Championship Games on ESPN, both games this year did worse than every game of the NBA Finals and not only did worse than ESPN’s NFL Wild Card game, the Orange Bowl had fewer viewers than the Bengals-Broncos regular season game three days earlier (and would have done worse than more games if ESPN’s MNF slate weren’t so underwhelming this year). In the valuable adults 18-49 demographic, the games drew ratings of 5.5 and 4.7 respectively; last year’s games had ratings of 8.9 and 8.3, resulting in overall declines of about 40% in both measures. Were the Rose Bowl not itself a blowout (and didn’t involve questionably-attractive Iowa), I wouldn’t be surprised if it embarrassed college football’s power brokers by doing better than one or both semifinals. According to Sports Media Watch, the games were the lowest-rated games with championship implications dating all the way back to the 1992 establishment of the Bowl Coalition.
Pretty much everyone that isn’t among college football’s power brokers, from fans to sportswriters and even ESPN itself (which tried and failed to move the semifinals to January 2 this year), thinks holding the semifinals on New Year’s Eve two out of every three years is a monumentally stupid idea. Many people work on New Year’s Eve and can’t catch the mid-afternoon game (or on the West Coast, the late game), and after they get off work they want to go out to a party (where Nielsen’s ratings don’t reach) to watch the countdown, not a college football game, no matter how important. Especially for those who thought the hatred for college football’s kingpins would die down once we finally got a playoff, the hatred being leveled at the New Year’s Eve semis is hard to fathom; Richard Deitsch went so far as to compare it to New Coke. But unlike New Coke, and despite the catastrophic declines, Bill Hancock says there’s no plans to change anything going forward. This seems unfathomable to pretty much everyone outside the offices of the College Football Playoff. The New Year’s Eve semis are universally reviled, seemingly destined to fail, and eminently disastrous. Why would college football’s power brokers want to double down on that?
The glib, short answer – the answer that’s partly the one the power brokers give when pressed on the issue – is that they are trying to establish a “new tradition”, or rather, two new traditions. The one they bring up is the notion of the New Year’s Six as a unit, as a two-day celebration of college football, across New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That notion is eminently flawed by itself for the same reason, but even with that, you could still have semifinals in the early afternoon and night of New Year’s Day, bracketing the Rose Bowl, as many have suggested. The problem with that is the other tradition college football is trying to establish: the notion of the Sugar Bowl between the SEC and Big 12 champions as a tradition on par with the Rose Bowl. Moving it around the schedule like the other New Year’s Six games (not to mention holding it on New Year’s Eve two out of three years) isn’t exactly conducive to establishing a new tradition.
The long answer begins with how this relates specifically to why the CFP rejected ESPN’s request to move the CFP semifinals to January 2. In July Ilan Ben-Hanan, vice-president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, told Deitsch they wanted to make the change to take advantage of a “one-year-only opportunity” created by a quirk in the calendar: the fact that January 2 would fall on a Saturday. Had it not been the second year of the playoff and New Year’s Six (and had ESPN made the suggestion earlier, when it would have been easier to move around stadium bookings), the CFP may have very well accepted the offer. But all parties knew that changing viewer habits in order to establish a new tradition on New Year’s Eve would be a tall order, and a task that would only be undermined by holding off on playing playoff games on New Year’s Eve the first two years and depriving New Year’s Eve of New Year’s Six games entirely in the second. In order to firmly establish New Year’s Eve as belonging to college football and as one of college football’s three biggest dates in the minds of most Americans, college football had to make sure it stayed the course and kept putting big college football games, like clockwork, on New Year’s Eve every year, not switch things up and move it to the first and second the second year with the semifinals on the second, confounding expectations.
As Ben-Hanan alludes to, the January 2 “solution” is one very specific to a calendar that has New Year’s Eve on a Thursday. Next year, because 2016 is a leap year, it’s New Year’s Eve that falls on a Saturday, which makes it the superior option to the day after the New Year’s bowls (which tradition and the NFL dictate get bumped to the second when New Year’s Day is a Sunday) for the semifinals to be held. And pretty much any other year, New Year’s Eve is pretty much always the better time to hold the semifinals than January 2. There may be plenty of people working when New Year’s Eve is a weekday, but there are certainly fewer people working and people working fewer hours than on January 2, or any other weekday in the general vicinity of New Year’s that’s not New Year’s Day itself. There’s no reason for the CFP to really reconsider anything until 2019, and with New Year’s Eve 2018 falling on Monday, there may be more people getting that day off than normal as a bridge to New Year’s Day, meaning fully half the CFP’s 12-year contract may pass before they have any reason to really reconsider anything. If anything, I would argue the CFP’s sin was in not considering the calendar when it set the initial rotation; 2017-18 is not a year that should be the Rose and Sugar Bowls’ turn in the semifinal rotation, because if you apply the no-NYD-bowl-on-Sunday rule to New Year’s Eve, then the absolute best-case scenario comes when New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday, when the New Year’s Eve bowls not only fall on a weekend but on a day where people aren’t going out at the end of the night. And while people watching the games at work or at a party may be a problem with regards to ratings now, that’s changing as we speak; Nielsen hopes to have its new “total audience measurement” integrated with its main ratings in time for next year’s New Year’s Six, and ESPN apparently worked with Nielsen to measure even people watching at bars and parties, though those numbers won’t be available for a few weeks at the moment.
What this really tells me is the tension between the two traditions college football is trying to establish, between college football’s past and its future, and just how committed college football’s power brokers really are to the playoff. When the SEC-Big 12 bowl was announced, I wondered if it would end up undermining the playoff, and in a way it is. While the CFP is finding college football’s existing bowl tradition inconvenient to their plans, the power conferences find themselves more attached to the Rose Bowl tradition than the playoff, doubling down on it by giving the plum New Year’s Day spots to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, making four out of five power conferences invested in that tradition and forcing the CFP to work around it.
The concept of the New Year’s Six was always sort of a harebrained idea to get to that point (unless the idea was to set the playoff up to fail). Not only does it force the semifinals to conflict with New Year’s Eve two out of three years, it actually undermines the Rose and Sugar Bowls those years, because the best teams will play in the most meaningful games, the playoff semifinals, before those two games and interest will fall off a cliff after that until the national championship. The playoff was always going to undermine the bowl system, and the emphasis on conference champions means that at least two of the four teams that would play in the Rose and Sugar Bowls will always be taken away for the sake of the playoff, so committing to those games as the finale of the New Year’s Six was always a bit of a losing proposition. Then there’s the fact that the remaining two New Year’s Six games are played in the early afternoon, hardly a time that screams “marquee game” and forcing the Fiesta Bowl to be played at 11 AM Mountain, and the Citrus and Outback Bowls haven’t cleared out from occupying that time slot on New Year’s Day, forcing whatever NY6 bowl ends up there to face more and better competition than pretty much any other bowl on the entire slate.
Any better solutions, however, would be limited, because you still want to communicate the notion of the New Year’s Six as a unit and, while you’d like to end the New Year’s Six with the semifinals when possible, you can’t move them too far away from the Rose and Sugar Bowls because, besides the Rose Bowl’s tradition, they’re likely to have the best non-semifinal matchups. Stretching the NY6 over at least three days, though, seems desirable, allowing all six bowls to get prime spots no earlier than the late afternoon. Combine that with a more calendar-conscious semifinal rotation and I think there’s a better solution that would work for the College Football Playoff by maximizing the number of times the semifinals are played on Saturday when they aren’t the Rose or Sugar. I mentioned above that the Rose and Sugar Bowls should never be the semifinals when New Year’s Day is a Sunday; let me amend that to say the Rose and Sugar Bowls should always be the semifinals when New Year’s Day is a Wednesday or Saturday, and never be the semifinals when it falls on any other day, unless a leap year causes one of those days (particularly Wednesday) to be skipped. If New Year’s Day is a Friday or Thursday, play the semis the following Saturday (and if Thursday, the other two bowls on the intervening day); if it’s a Sunday or Monday, play the preceding Saturday; if it’s a Tuesday and doesn’t start a leap year, play on New Year’s Eve. Note that, other than the timing of bowls that are neither the Rose, Sugar, or semifinals, this is only inconsistent with the CFP’s “new tradition” if New Year’s Day is a Friday or Thursday.
Had the CFP taken this approach, they might have still had the Rose and Sugar Bowls host the first year to make up for missing a Wednesday year by one year, but then they wouldn’t host again until 2020, and then again in 2022. Through next year this would have been consistent with ESPN getting their way this year (other than the timing of non-Rose/Sugar/Semifinal bowls), and other than when the Rose and Sugar host, would have remained so right up until the last year of the contract if ESPN got their way again in 2020-2021 (somewhat incredibly, a Rose/Sugar year in real life).
But then, neither the power brokers nor ESPN have much reason to change course; the CFP’s contract is set for the next ten years and they make the same money no matter what, so they only really have any reason to change course if the New Year’s Eve semifinals prove actively destructive to the overall popularity of college football, and they certainly didn’t let a bunch of sportswriter whining get to them over the 16-year-long lifespan of the BCS so they certainly won’t do so now. The value of the CFP to ESPN, meanwhile, is mostly in how it juices up its subscriber fees, without which the CFP would almost certainly be on broadcast like it should be, and while people might be a little less attached to cable if they can’t watch the game anyway, it’s the fact that ESPN carries the games that matters to their subscriber fees, with when they’re held a more secondary consideration. If you want college football to bail from their “new tradition” in the next six years, you want cord-cutting to accelerate to the point of making a sizable dent in ESPN’s bottom line and undermining the value of their subscription revenue stream, causing these two things to collide head-on. If the CFP decides they can’t spend the rest of the contract with the playoff stuck on a glorified premium channel, they may try to force ESPN to move the remaining playoff games, if not the entire New Year’s Six, to ABC (or otherwise to offer them for free), and that would mean advertising would have to pull a lot more of the CFP’s weight, giving both ESPN and the CFP a lot more incentive to pull the semifinals off New Year’s Eve (although keeping them there would give ABC a powerhouse lead-in to the already dominant New Year’s Rockin’ Eve).
In a way, the fact the New Year’s Six was even a plausible concept says a lot about how the shift to cable changed the scheduling priorities. The BCS was scheduled for broadcast television, where the only non-primetime spots generally open to sports are on weekends and holidays, and so the Rose Bowl was the only game not placed in a primetime slot. But ESPN has complete control over its schedule without dealing with affiliates and less dependence on advertising revenue, and is more concerned with filling time than with ratings – note that ESPN has long aired afternoon bowls throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s – and so its priority was to spread out high ratings throughout the entire day while still being able to count on, if not other bowls, college and professional basketball games to attract decent ratings of their own in primetime. The move of the BCS to ESPN was the ultimate manifestation of the greed of college football’s kingpins, and since it kicked in I’ve never watched more of any BCS or New Year’s Six game than necessary to see the graphics, BottomLine treatment, or sample Megacast coverage (which admittedly makes a fairly weak boycott), not even letting a cable box sit on ESPN with the TV off lest it send data implying our household is actually standing for it. For everyone who didn’t follow suit, from Congressmen that didn’t use it as a reason to keep a closer eye on college football’s “amateur” “academic” purposes to fans who took what they were given and dutifully turned on ESPN at the appropriate times, this is what you’ve sown. Feel lucky this sort of thing hasn’t spread throughout sports – yet.