The record ratings shortfalls that haunted the sports world throughout the back half of 2020 has lingered into the New Year, as ESPN’s coverage of Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship drew the smallest audience for a title tilt.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Alabama’s suspense-free 52-24 victory over Ohio State averaged 18.7 million viewers across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, which marks the lowest linear TV delivery in the 23 years in which college football has crowned a champion by way of a year-end game. Before the current CFP system was installed at the top of the 2014 season, the BCS format had held sway for 16 years.
While additional deliveries generated by ESPNews and the ESPN app should push the final MegaCast impressions beyond the 19 million mark, Bama’s blowout of the Buckeyes is unlikely to top the lows established by ABC’s broadcast of the 2005 Orange Bowl. USC’s systematic demolition of Oklahoma was decided by a 55-19 margin, which goes a long way toward explaining why the network averaged only 21.4 million viewers and a 13.7 household rating.
As it happens, the following year gave rise to the all-time ratings high, as ABC’s presentation of the hair-raising Rose Bowl spectacle featuring Texas and USC averaged 35.6 million viewers and a 21.7 rating. The first college football game to feature a team with two Heisman Trophy winners on the roster—the Trojans’ Matt Leinart won the hardware in 2004, while Reggie Bush claimed the prize the following year—the game saw the Longhorns come back from a 38-26 deficit with just six minutes and 42 seconds left in regulation.
Monday’s skirmish lacked any sort of back-and-forth momentum, and anyone with more than a sporting interest in the point total likely tuned out with about 40 minutes to go in the telecast. Alabama’s Najee Harris settled the over-under just one minute and 45 seconds into the fourth quarter, and Mac Jones’ four first-half touchdown passes effectively took the air out of the spread well before the Eastern time zone’s bedtime.
Not helping matters was the size of the available TV audience. On Monday night, 84.7 million people watched TV, which marked a 12% drop compared to the universe of 96.7 million viewers who were parked in front of the tube during last year’s title game. In other words, ESPN had to contend with a 12-million-viewer deficit even before the blowout got completely out of hand.
While the final MegaCast numbers have yet to be processed, last night’s game is currently on track to be down by anywhere between 25% and 30% compared to the 2020 LSU-Clemson game, which averaged 27.3 million viewers across all ESPN platforms.
The previous low for a CFP title game was notched in 2017, when the second of three Clemson-Alabama battles averaged 26.0 million viewers and a 14.2 rating. That game was perhaps the most riveting college football title matchup since the Texas-USC shootout in 2006, as Clemson’s last-second [literally] come-from-behind victory over the Crimson Tide gave the Tigers their first national football title since 1981 and avenged their year-ago loss in Phoenix.
As with the other major sporting events that have delivered depressed ratings during the pandemic, the fact that college football managed to finish the season after so many postponements and cancellations counts as a significant victory for the conferences, the teams and the network partners. If nothing else, Monday’s TV ratings should serve as a reminder that the ball in Times Square didn’t automatically trigger some sort of magical re-set button when it reached the bottom of the pole, and that we’re now still about as far from normal as we were back in March.