According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Alabama’s 31-14 win over Notre Dame in a decidedly non-traditional environment—California’s coronavirus spike forced officials to uproot the Grandaddy of Them All from its native Pasadena soil to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas—averaged 18.9 million viewers, of whom nearly 6 million were adults 18-49. That marked a 10% improvement compared to last year’s Peach Bowl rout, in which LSU’s Joe Burrow threw seven touchdown passes in a 63-28 laugher against Oklahoma that averaged 17.2 million viewers.
The second game on Friday’s playoff slate saw the seven-point dogs from Ohio State steamroll Clemson 49-28 in front of a national TV audience of 19.2 million viewers, of whom roughly 6.5 million were members of the all-important 18-49 set. The audience delivery marked a 9% drop versus the year-ago Fiesta Bowl, which saw the Tigers edge the Buckeyes 29-23 while some 21.2 million viewers looked on.
All told, Friday’s doubleheader averaged 19.0 million viewers, down 2% from 19.3 million for the year-ago games, which aired on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. And while that retention figure is enviable, given the ongoing erosion of TV ratings, this weekend’s numbers marked a low point for a pair of New Year’s Day playoffs.
In 2018, ESPN averaged 24.2 million viewers with its Rose Bowl-Sugar Bowl two-fer, which included a particularly memorable afternoon game. An instant classic, Georgia’s 54-48 win over Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in double-overtime averaged 26.9 million viewers—28.3 million when out-of-home impressions were stirred into the mix—and remains one of cable TV’s 10 most-watched telecasts of all time. (Browns fans will remember that running back Nick Chubb’s two-touchdown performance was instrumental in sealing Georgia’s victory; Mayfield and Chubb have since joined forces and on Sunday will collaborate in Cleveland’s first NFL playoff appearance since 2002.)
This year’s playoffs also paled in comparison to the inaugural CFP outing in 2015, which featured another Jan. 1 pairing. Together, the Rose Bowl (Oregon 59-Florida State 20) and Sugar Bowl (Alabama 35-Ohio State 42) averaged 28.3 million viewers, a playoff high that has yet to be surpassed.
If Friday’s games failed to deliver the massive ratings of past New Year’s Day outings, the deliveries were largely in keeping with advertisers’ diminished expectations. Since the broadcast season began back on Sept. 21, overall TV usage is down 10% year-over-year (79.5 million viewers per night versus 88.2 million), while ad-supported cable networks have watched 19% of their 18-49 audience disappear. It’s perhaps worth noting that ESPN’s playoff telecasts not only eclipsed every World Series game on Fox and NBA Finals broadcast on sibling network ABC, but they also held their own in comparison to the colossus that is the NFL. When juxtaposed with the first 16 weeks of this year’s pro football deliveries, the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl would finish among the NFL’s top 20 regular-season broadcasts.
Per iSpot.tv estimates, ESPN’s playoff telecasts raked in some $117.7 million in ad sales revenue, which paid off in 3.2 billion commercial impressions. As has been the case since former ESPN sales guru Ed Erhardt began selling the playoff package back in 2014, this year’s biggest in-game spenders were also official CFP sponsors. Among the brands that snapped up the most inventory in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl: Allstate, Taco Bell, AT&T, Capital One, Chick-fil-A and Dr Pepper, all of which have served as official sponsors of the event since its inception. Dos Equis, which signed on as the official beer sponsor during the second year of the CFP era, was also a top 10 spender.
Dr Pepper was the very first sponsor to stake its claim in the CFP when the new format was adopted seven years ago. The soda brand is committed to continuing its premium sponsorship—which includes the title rights to the championship trophy—through at least 2026.
The 7-0 Buckeyes square off against the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide next Monday on ESPN. The opening kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. This marks Ohio State’s first appearance in the title tilt since winning the inaugural championship game. Monday’s game will give Alabama its fifth shot at the CFP crown; including its two victories under the current system, the program has won a grand total of 17 national championships since its inception in 1892, while the Buckeyes have earned eight titles over the course of their 131 seasons.