It’s been five years since ESPN last had to grapple with the prospect of producing a New Year’s Eve edition of the College Football Playoff semifinals, and while the festivities will likely make a dent in the TV ratings, the impact on Bristol’s overall bowl season ad-sales haul should be minimal.
That the overlap of the two play-in games and Amateur Night might be less than ideal was first proven out back in 2015, the second year of the CFP era. When Oklahoma and Clemson kicked off the Orange Bowl off at 4 p.m. EST, scores of fans on the East Coast were making an early break away from the office, while millions of their counterparts out West were still in the thick of the final business day of the year.
If there had been any doubt as to the essential myopia of the CFP executive board’s assertion that it would forge a new holiday tradition in the face of an age-old ritual, the Nielsen data served as a hearty kick in the pants. The Orange Bowl averaged 15.6 million viewers, down 45% versus the analogous Oregon-Florida State Rose Bowl game, which drew 28.2 million on the very first day of that same year.
As fans in the Eastern time zone began to make their way off the couch and toward their various New Year’s destinations, ESPN’s presentation of the Cotton Bowl began. Thus, while No. 1 seed Alabama faced off against Michigan State, the number of people watching TV had begun to plummet; per Nielsen, 30 million fewer people were watching TV at the half than was the case during the midway point of the comparable ‘Bama-Ohio State playoff 364 days earlier. The final tally for the telecast: 18.6 million viewers, down 34%. (In addition to the huge drop in HUT levels—industry argot for “Homes Using TV,” the 38-0 blowout did Bristol no favors.)
In July 2016, the CFP board announced that it would shift the semis away from any Dec. 31 that fell on a weekday, a move that eliminated conflicts in 2018, 2019, 2024 and 2025. Because a Friday that immediately precedes a NYE Saturday is now a federally observed holiday, this year’s Dec. 31 date was retained. (Next year’s semis also stayed put, as the final day of 2022 will fall on a Saturday.)
Because most office drones will have Friday off, the HUT levels for the early NYE game (Cincinnati-Alabama in the Cotton Bowl) should be relatively stable, with usage unlikely to drop by more than 8% from the standard December Saturday levels. The real crunch will come with the resumption of the long-deferred rounds of holiday party-going, as the Orange Bowl (Georgia-Michigan) will coincide with a good deal of merriment in the Eastern and Central time zones, which is where you’ll find 77% of the nation’s TV homes. That said, now that out-of-home deliveries are part of the national ratings sample and just about everyone has a portable viewing device in their pocket, ESPN will be credited with a host of deliveries that wouldn’t have counted back in 2015.
National TV buyers say pricing for the two semis has been consistent with what their clients agreed to in 2019. According to Standard Media Index data, the average unit cost of those playoff telecasts worked out to around $512,460 per 30-second spot, with primetime ads having gone for as much as $600,000 a throw. Together, the 2019 semis raked in some $91.8 million in ad sales revenue, with the subsequent title game bringing the three-game total to a cool $176.4 million.
The overall ad spend for last year’s CFP games was just under $120 million, a tally that largely reflects pandemic pricing and the makegoods tendered in the wake of the historically low-rated title tilt. Alabama’s 52-24 drubbing of Ohio State averaged 18.7 million viewers across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, which marked the lowest TV delivery in the 23 years of CFP and BCS championship showdowns.
While the three CFP games generate the most revenue for ESPN, the bowl season as a whole is essentially a month-long money grab. In addition to all the dollars ($343.6 million in 2019, per SMI estimates) that will pour in, courtesy of the likes of Allstate, AT&T, Capital One, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A and Dr Pepper, the company’s ESPN Events division owns 18 bowl games outright. Along with the on-site revenue to be derived from the owned-and-operated bowls, ESPN’s 12-year, $7.3 billion deal with the CFP also gives Bristol oversight of the naming rights for those games.
ESPN also manages the roster of official CFP sponsors, and the overlap of sanctioned bowl backers and full-on event sponsors is where the magic happens. In August 2019, less than a year after ESPN landed Cheez-It as the title sponsor of what had formerly been billed as the Cactus Bowl (and the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl before that), the Kellogg’s brand upped its commitment and signed on as an official sponsor of the CFP series. A year later, Cheez-It reversed course on its naming-rights deal, opting to take over for Camping World as the sponsor of the annual ACC-Big 12 clash in Orlando.
Despite the change in venues, Cheez-It remains a CFP sponsor. The annual cost of the entitlement runs in the low-10 figures and includes a significant season-long ad buy across ESPN’s college football telecasts.