Texas A&M has a legitimate beef about being passed over for a berth in the College Football Playoffs, and at the same time, University of Cincinnati partisans are understandably aggrieved by their Bearcats’ exclusion from the New Year’s Day semis. But as has been borne out by thousands of years of empirical evidence and anecdotal reports, life is in no way fair or just.
As much as advertising impressions didn’t play a role in the selection committee’s decision to advance Notre Dame over the other worthy candidates, the Day One quartet of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and the Fighting Irish offers the best possible return on investment for media partner ESPN. Having forked over $7.3 billion for the rights to air the College Football Playoff through 2025, the network has every reason to believe that the inclusion of Notre Dame will go a long way toward drawing a television audience that’ll justify the $500,000 it’s charging for each 30-second in-game commercial.
As with most things related to the isoelastic curve, the sports TV market lives or dies on interest and scarcity. Selling a half-million-dollar unit pinned to Notre Dame is a comparatively friction-free endeavor, given the school’s massive national following—an attribute that’s perhaps best illustrated by the Nielsen ratings. In a season blighted by cancellations and viral outbreaks, the Irish offered broadcasters an uncommon consistency, drawing outsized numbers in each of its national TV windows. Notre Dame broadcasts finished at the top of the college football ratings heap no fewer than four times over the course of the season, while claiming second place in Weeks 7 and 13.
More to the point, the Irish featured in the season’s two most-watched, highest-rated broadcasts, including the only game that delivered an eight-figure audience. In what was the most compelling college football contest of the plague year, Notre Dame knocked off Clemson 47-40 in double overtime, marking the first time the team had toppled a No. 1 at home since 1993.
That Week 10 broadcast averaged 10.1 million viewers and a 5.4 household rating, which stands as the high-water mark for the season, and the biggest turnout for a Notre Dame game on NBC in 27 years. Saturday’s rematch for the ACC title was college football’s second biggest draw, as ABC averaged 9.92 million viewers and a 5.5 rating. The overall deliveries likely would have topped the earlier Clemson-Notre Dame outing if it hadn’t been so one-sided; on the way to winning their sixth consecutive ACC crown, the Tigers mauled the Irish by a 34-10 margin.
Saturday’s beatdown peaked at 11.6 million viewers from 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET, and now stands as the most-viewed broadcast in the 16-year history of the ACC Championship Game. When streaming via the ESPN app is added to the mix, the Disney outlets averaged just under 10.2 million viewers.
Notre Dame also played a starring role in two other top 20 broadcasts, both of which aired on ABC. The team’s 31-17 victory over North Carolina on Nov. 27 averaged 6.08M viewers and a 3.5 rating, good for No. 11 on the season, while its 45-31 win in Chestnut Hill against Boston College on Nov. 14 averaged 5.14 million viewers and a 3.0 in prime (No. 13).
Clemson did not appear in any other of the season’s 20 highest-rated games, although the Tigers did show up in the No. 21 and No. 23 slots. Ohio State was well represented, laying claim to four of the season’s 10 most-watched games, a roster which includes the Big Ten Championship Game on Fox. The Buckeyes on Dec. 19 took their fourth straight conference title, beating a tenacious Northwestern squad 22-10 in front of a TV audience of 8.03 million fans. Alabama, for its part, showed up in three of the top 10 broadcasts; of these, the Crimson Tide’s home win against Georgia ranked third with 9.61 million CBS viewers and a 5.3 rating.
If the Alabama-Notre Dame and Clemson-Ohio State pairings offer ESPN its best shot at delivering a big audience on Jan. 1, the ongoing deterioration of sports TV ratings remains a concern. Through the first three months of the 2020-21 broadcast season, live TV viewing is down 10% year-over-year with an average audience of 79.7 million viewers tuning in each night versus 88.5 million during the same period in 2019, while the Big Four broadcasters are down 25% on a pro-rated basis.
Some slippage was apparent in the SEC Championship Game ratings, as the Dec. 19 Alabama-Florida showdown averaged 8.92 million viewers and a 4.9 rating on CBS, the lowest turnout for the conference in more than a decade. Airing in the non-traditional primetime window, the Tide-Gators broadcast went head-to-head with NFL Network’s presentation of the Panthers-Packers game, which itself averaged a cable-high 5.61 million viewers. Earlier the same day, Fox’s aforementioned Big Ten Championship put up the lowest numbers since 2014, and came up 40% short compared to last year’s Ohio State-Wisconsin clash (13.6 million viewers).
As for the teams on the outside looking in, Texas A&M’s highest-rated outing was its Oct. 3 drubbing in Tuscaloosa, a 52-24 loss which averaged 4.76 million viewers and a 2.8 rating on CBS. That was the Aggies’ lone appearance in the top 20; the team’s 20-7 home win against LSU on Nov. 28 claimed the No. 30 spot with an average draw of 4.15M viewers and a 2.2 rating on ESPN. Meanwhile, 9-0 Cincinnati’s highest-rated TV appearance, a 27-24 win over Tulsa in the AAC title game, averaged just 1.88 million viewers in primetime on ABC.
The last time the college football semifinals were held on New Year’s Day, back in 2018, ESPN put up enormous ratings. The Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl air show averaged 26.9 million viewers (28.3 million, with out-of-home deliveries blended into the traditional TV data) and a 13.7 household rating, while Alabama’s 24-6 curbing of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl averaged 21.5 million viewers and an 11.4 rating. If it’s unlikely that either game in this year’s bracket will come anywhere near that Rose Bowl number, it’s worth noting that HUT levels (TV argot for “Homes Using Television”) are sky-high on the first of the year, as the country collectively pauses for the annual winter lull.
Of course, if Vegas’ point spread is anything to go by—our friends in the desert have ‘Bama listed as a 19.5-point favorite over Notre Dame—then ESPN may be fighting a war of attrition in the early game. (Rest assured, the spread would be just as roomy if Texas A&M or Cincinnati had made the cut.) But for two very notable exceptions (see: 2017, 2006), the last 20-odd years of the protean CFB/BCS scheme has left many boosters fuming about college football’s caste system. When you’re selling a 133-year tradition built on ghosts (Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Regis Philbin) and Touchdown Jesus, mythology trumps pragmatism every time.