For the first time in more than a century, the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines will not square off in their annual Big Ten showdown, as a coronavirus outbreak in Ann Arbor has sidelined the college football tradition that’s as storied as Auburn-Alabama and Army-Navy. And while the cancellation of The Game may wreak havoc with Ohio State’s shot at vying for its fifth conference championship, perhaps no party stands to feel the sting of the schedule’s disruption more than Fox.
As much as this year’s version of the Buckeyes-Wolverines hatefest may not have looked terribly promising on paper—with a 2-4 record, Jim Harbaugh’s charges opened as 30-point home ‘dogs against their 5-0 rivals, who are ranked No. 3 in the nation—The Game is a proven moneymaker for Fox. According to Standard Media Index data, last year’s broadcast generated $18.5 million in advertising revenue, making it Fox’s second-most lucrative college football production behind only the Big Ten Championship Game. In that contest, Ohio State’s 34-21 victory over Wisconsin, which averaged 13.6 million viewers and a 7.6 household rating, scared up $19.4 million in ad sales.
Pricing for the Ohio State-Michigan game is boosted by the inevitable crush of football fans who tune in every year. Per SMI, Fox’s going rate for a 30-second unit in last year’s broadcast was $219,367 a pop, while inventory purchased in the scatter market averaged out to just under $280,000 for a half-minute of airtime. The sheer number of people who settle in for the noon kickoff justifies the expense; according to Nielsen, the 116th meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines rustled up 12.4 million viewers and a 7.1 rating on Nov. 30, 2019.
Discounting the SEC and Big Ten title games, last year’s Ohio State-Michigan skirmish was the second most-watched regular-season college football broadcast. Tops on the list was CBS’s coverage of LSU-Alabama, which delivered 16.6 million viewers and a 9.7 rating in the network’s big 3:30 p.m. ET window. That the Big Ten brawl managed to put up the numbers it did is a testament to the enduring power of the rivalry rather than the quality of play. The Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines 56-27, a margin of victory that was even greater than that of the year before (62-39).
In five attempts, Harbaugh has yet to beat Ohio State. His seven-year, $52.1 million contract with Michigan expires at the end of the 2021 season.
The last time The Game was scuttled by global catastrophe was in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I.
Fox has not disclosed what it will air in place of The Game, although its options are rather limited. It’s possible that Fox Sports higher-ups may decide to shift the Minnesota-Nebraska game from the cable channel FS1 to the broadcast flagship, although that pairing isn’t likely to move the ratings needle. The 2-3 Golden Gophers currently sit in fourth place in the Big Ten West, while the 2-4 Huskers are languishing at the bottom of the division.
But such has been the case throughout this college football season, which has seen 122 games postponed or canceled outright as a result of various coronavirus outbreaks. Disruption is the price to pay for trying to get a full complement of games played on the way to crowning a national champion, and advertisers like Geico, Progressive, Google and Nissan have come to expect the unexpected.
Season-to-date, Fox’s most-watched college football broadcast was the Buckeyes’ 42-35 win over the visiting Indiana Hoosiers on Nov. 21. The game averaged 6.36 million viewers, making it the fifth-biggest draw of the 2020-21 college football campaign.
Fox is set to air the 10th Annual Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 19. As Ohio State will head into that weekend with just five games under its belt, one shy of the mandatory minimum set by the conference, it is currently ineligible to participate in that title tilt. Big Ten officials, however, may elect to retroactively change the rule in order to make allowances for the Buckeyes; in that case, the team would take on 5-1 Northwestern. If conference brass elect to stay the course, Fox will have to make do with an Indiana-Northwestern pairing.
(This story has been updated to clarify the status of Ohio State’s title-game eligibility under current conference rules.)