While it’s fair to say that at least some of the recent TV ratings declines may be chalked up to a sort of option paralysis in the face of an unprecedented array of live action—the overlap of NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL games in 2020 has made commonplace the once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon of the sports equinox—the too-much-of-a-good-thing theory doesn’t seem to hold water where college football is concerned. The multiple delays and schedule-scrambling at the conference level has made a hash of the September slate, and the dearth of appealing matchups has had a bruising impact on the early ratings results.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, ratings for the first few weeks of nationally televised college football are down significantly compared to last season, which kicked off with a far more compelling roster of late-summer games. Last Saturday’s games averaged 1.3 million viewers and a 0.8 household rating, which marked a decline of 40% and 43%, respectively, compared to 2.18 million viewers/1.4 rating in the compatible windows a year ago.
CBS took the biggest hit of the weekend, as deliveries for its Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET window plummeted 75%. Little wonder: Last year’s game, which featured No. 8 Alabama and their SEC cohorts from South Carolina, averaged 4.95 million viewers and a 3.0 rating, making it the most-watched collegiate broadcast of the week. This time around, CBS was saddled with an inter-conference skirmish between the Sun Belt’s Appalachian State and Conference USA’s Marshall; per Nielsen, the Thundering Herd’s 17-7 upset of the Mountaineers averaged just 1.25 million viewers and a 0.7 rating.
ABC got a boost from a favorable year-ago comp, as its presentation of an ACC intrigue between Miami and Louisville averaged 3.8 million viewers and a 2.1 rating in primetime, up 5% versus the 3.62 million viewers who tuned in for last year’s Clemson’s 41-6 blowout of Syracuse. (ABC’s household ratings were down two-tenths of a point, or 9%. The disparity between overall viewership and the household ratings is largely a function of the impact the addition of out-of-home impressions is having on the final tallies. In other words, while the total audience is getting a bit of a lift from fans watching in bars, gyms and restaurants, the more prosaic household rating isn’t seeing any benefit from the inflation.)
ABC’s cable siblings had another rough outing, as ESPN’s Saturday triple-header averaged 960,000 viewers and a 0.6 rating, down 51% and 45%, respectively, compared to its year-ago 1.94 million/1.1, while deliveries for ESPN2’s suite of college games dropped 56% to just 317,000 viewers. Again, the quality of the matchups would seem to have been a factor in ESPN’s ratings declines; a year ago the network featured the No. 6 Florida Gators vs. Kentucky in primetime, whereas this weekend’s marquee draw pitted the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina against the Fighting Camels of Campbell. Ratings for ESPN’s primetime window were down 68% versus the year-ago Gators-Wildcats telecast.
If the college football gods have been fairly stingy during the COVID-19 comeback interval, their bounty is about to get a lot more generous as CBS’s SEC schedule kicks into gear on Sept. 26 and the Big Ten retakes the field in late October. CBS’s 3:30 p.m. ET window is regularly host to one of the three top-rated college football games in any given week, and this coming Saturday the network has Mississippi State and No. 6 LSU primed for its cozy afternoon slot. CBS can also look forward to a primetime meeting between Georgia and Alabama on Oct. 17, LSU-Auburn at 3:30 p.m. on Halloween and Alabama-LSU at 6 p.m. two weeks later.
It perhaps goes without saying that SEC football is the straw that stirs the ratings drink; last season, CBS notched the most-watched game of the fall campaign with its LSU-‘Bama broadcast (16.7 million viewers), while also moving the needle with LSU-Georgia (13.7 million) and ‘Bama-Auburn (11.5 million). Those games were among the five biggest draws of 2019.
The Tigers-Bulldogs game, which also crowned the season’s SEC champs, marked CBS’s most lucrative college football game, as the network’s sales team commanded an average unit cost of $323,043 for each half-minute of in-game ad inventory. According to Standard Media Index, CBS booked a grand total of $22.3 million on the SEC Championship Game, making it the most valuable advertising environment outside of the College Football Playoff series.
For Fox, which was effectively benched by the postponement of the Big Ten and Pac-12 seasons—a year ago at this time, the broadcaster had already aired eight college football games; thus far in 2020 it’s managed a single Arkansas State-Kansas State matchup—the return of Ohio State, Michigan, et al will go a long way toward reversing its ratings fortunes. While the Buckeyes and Wolverines won’t square off until Dec. 12, Fox can expect to draw a crowd on Oct. 24 with its first Big Ten showdown between Nebraska and Ohio State.
Among last season’s top TV draws were Ohio State-Wisconsin (13.6 million viewers), Ohio State-Michigan (12.5 million) and Penn State-Ohio State (9.43 million). Each of those three games aired on Fox. As it happens, these three games were also some of the priciest buys for advertisers in 2019. Per Standard Media Index data, the Buckeyes-Badgers tilt commanded an average unit cost of $257,296 per 30-second spot, while the cost of reaching viewers in The Game was $236,535 a pop. SMI estimates that Fox booked $37.9 million in ad sales revenue on those two games alone.
ABC’s Saturday Night Football showcase, which was the ninth highest-rated program on network TV in 2019-20, may also expect to enjoy a big bounce once the Big Ten claws its way back into the limelight. For the first three weeks of this season, ABC’s primetime broadcast has been saddled with an all-ACC roster, kicking off with Clemson-Wake Forest on Sept. 19 before forging ahead with back-to-back Miami games.
If this were the 1980s, a double shot of the Hurricanes would be cause for celebration; unfortunately, there’s no longer much of a national appetite for the moody neon-noir of Miami Vice, nor do many people outside of Dade County clamor for the ‘Canes. Saturday’s primetime game against the toothy Cardinals of Louisville averaged just 3.8 million viewers and a 2.1 rating, down 48% compared to the analogous Oklahoma State-TCU broadcast in 2018.
Unfortunately for ABC, it will no longer lead off its upcoming Saturday slate with a noontime meeting between No. 7 Notre Dame and Wake Forest. The Irish elected to postpone the game on Tuesday afternoon after seven players tested positive for the coronavirus. To date, this marks the fourth ACC game to be delayed or canceled outright as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Among the most-watched teams of 2019 were Ohio State, LSU, Auburn, Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, Penn State and Florida. The odd men out here are the Big 12’s Sooners, the only team on the list that isn’t a representative of either the Big Ten or SEC.