Despite a rash of positive COVID-19 tests popping up in the Ohio State Buckeyes’ camp, tonight’s College Football Playoff national championship game will proceed as scheduled. CFP director Bill Hancock on Friday dismissed earlier reports of postponement, confirming that the Big Ten champs would square off against No. 1 Alabama this evening, in a title tilt that will be televised on ESPN and its suite of sibling outlets.
Last week, an outbreak among one of Ohio State’s position groups led to talk that a one-week postponement of the national championship game, which kicks off at 8 p.m. EST, was looming. While the Buckeyes did not specify how many players would sit out tonight’s game, this won’t be the first time the team will have to go deep into the depth chart. Ohio State had to forge ahead without a number of key players in its 49-28 Sugar Bowl rout of Clemson on New Year’s Day—among those who sat out were defensive ends Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison—and hasn’t played at full strength since its Nov. 21 game against Indiana.
Ohio State completed its final round of coronavirus testing early Friday evening, shortly after Alabama’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, announced that the Crimson Tide had been cleared to head to Miami. The Buckeyes arrived in southeastern Florida on Saturday night, a day after Nick Saban’s charges.
This makes the seventh championship game of the CFP era, which Ohio State helped kick off back on Jan. 12, 2015 with a 42-20 win over the Oregon Ducks. ESPN’s inaugural telecast averaged a staggering 34.6 million viewers and an 18.6 household rating, a tally that includes impressions delivered by ESPNews, ESPNU and the the now-defunct WatchESPN app. The flagship channel averaged 33.4 million viewers, making the Buckeyes-Ducks game the most-watched telecast in cable TV history.
While those first-year numbers remain remarkable—ESPN nearly matched the high-water mark of 35.6 million viewers and a 21.7 household rating, which ABC notched with its broadcast of the spectacular 2006 Rose Bowl game—deliveries for the ensuing title telecasts failed to top the 30 million-viewer mark. That’s unlikely to change when the final Nielsen data is rounded up tomorrow afternoon, although the pairing of two programs with massive national followings gives Disney its best shot at pulling a ratings upset.
Ohio State appeared in four of the season’s top 10 most-watched college football broadcasts, drawing its biggest pre-bowl crowd with its Dec. 19 Big Ten Championship victory over Northwestern. Fox averaged 8.03 million viewers and a 4.7 rating in what proved to be the fifth highest-rated college football game of 2020. Alabama popped up in three top 10 games, with its best showing coming courtesy of its Oct. 17 win over Georgia. CBS’s primetime coverage of ‘Bama’s 41-24 romp averaged 9.61 million viewers and a 5.3 rating, good for No. 3 on the list, behind only NBC’s Nov. 7 Clemson-Notre Dame broadcast (10.1 million, 5.4 rating) and ABC’s reprise of that matchup on Dec. 19 (9.92 million, 5.5).
As has been the case since ESPN kickstarted the CFP era, this year’s championship game will be loaded with commercial messaging from the tournament’s official sponsors. Among the brands that have snapped up the most inventory in tonight’s game are Allstate, AT&T, Capital One, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A and Dr Pepper, all of which have served as official backers of the CFP since its inception. Dr Pepper also sponsors the presentation of the national championship trophy, a premium that allows the brand to place its logo in a conspicuous place on the hardware itself.
AT&T is the presenting sponsor of tonight’s telecast.
Media buyers said that the going rate for a 30-second spot in tonight’s title game is between $975,000 and $1 million a pop, consistent with last year’s pricing. Along with the deep-pocketed CFP sponsors, which also include Dos Equis, Gatorade, Goodyear and Samsung, ESPN has lined up additional support from representatives of the standard college football categories. These include quick-serve restaurants, automakers, insurance companies and wireless providers. In keeping with a tradition that is seemingly as old as time itself, both schools have purchased in-game promotional spots, as have their respective athletic conferences.
Disney’s ad sales group did not respond to an inquiry into the in-game rates, nor did it confirm that the telecast had sold out.
ESPN’s MegaCast coverage of the championship game will include a new wrinkle in CFP Live, an analysis-heavy simulcast on ESPN2 helmed by the NFL Live crew (Laura Rutledge, Marcus Spears, Dan Orlovsky and Mina Kimes). Film Room will be back again this year on ESPNews, while the MegaCast mainstay SkyCast heads to ESPNU. Home cookin’ will be served up via the SEC Network’s Alabama-centric feed, while a parallel presentation favoring Ohio State can be found on the ESPN app.
Alabama opened as a 7-point favorite, and the line has since shifted to -8. The over/under is 75.5 points, as Vegas expects ‘Bama’s Mac Jones to have another big night through the air. A junior, Jones this season connected on 77% of his passes, of which 36 resulted in touchdowns. He threw for 4,036 yards, second only to Florida’s Kyle Trask. Ohio State’s signal caller, the junior transfer Justin Fields, is a dual threat, rushing for 316 yards and five scores while amassing 1,906 yards and 21 touchdowns through the troposphere.
Historically, a high-scoring, closely matched game will give ESPN and its subsidiary channels the best shot at putting up a big ratings number. When out-of-home impressions and various streaming deliveries are accounted for, ESPN’s coverage should average out somewhere between 26 million and 28 million overall viewers.