SBD/December 31, 2015/Media

Experts Weigh In On CFP Semifinal Viewership Expectations With Move To New Year's Eve

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Last season’s inaugural CFP semifinals set a high bar as far as TV audience is concerned. The games rank as the No. 2 and No. 3 most-viewed telecasts in the history of cable and rivaled some early NFL Playoff games on broadcast TV. But this season, the semifinals have been moved to New Year’s Eve, and questions have persisted all year as to what type of audience numbers the Cotton and Orange Bowls can get. Last year’s early semifinal drew 28.2 million viewers (Rose Bowl, Oregon-Florida State) and the late semifinal drew 28.3 million viewers (Sugar Bowl, Ohio State-Alabama). With those numbers in mind, a panel of media observers spoke via email with THE DAILY and gave their audience expectations for Thursday’s semifinals on ESPN. Answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

Pilson Communications President Neal Pilson:
I'll go against common wisdom on this one. I suspect most observers will predict significantly lower ratings and viewership for the CFP this year with the games on New Year's Eve rather than New Year's Day. Dec. 31 is a virtual holiday, with most people taking off the entire day or at least the afternoon. I know my plans are to watch the 4:00pm game at home and then insist that our host for dinner put his TV on so I can check on the progress of the late game. I'm predicting both games will average about 26 million viewers, off less than 10% from last year.

The Trager Group Chair Mike Trager:
Always dangerous trying to guess viewing, but I think logistics might play a role. Thursday is a work day for many people and that might impact viewing of the early game. New Year’s Eve commitments could impact the primetime game. My guess is an average of 26.5 million viewers.

Wasserman Media Group Managing Exec for Global Media Dean Jordan:
For the first game, we project an audience in the range of a 10.5-11.5 rating and 21 million viewers, while Game 2 should do a 12.5-13.5 rating and 24.5 million viewers. With no history to reference, it will be interesting to see how individual West Coast markets perform given the lack of a Pac-12 participant. The numbers may be nudged down or up a few ticks based on game competitiveness.

Sports Media Advisors Founder & CEO Doug Perlman:
The games will lose viewers to not only New Year’s Eve celebrations, but also work schedules during the early game. There is no question in my mind that the CFP has established itself as a top tier sporting event that many people will plan their schedules around, but the timing will cost them casual fans. WatchESPN will undoubtedly receive significant traffic from partygoers and people stuck at work, but I would expect to see a dip in viewership of 15-25%.

Sports Desk Media President & co-Founder Eric Fernandez:
I’d expect to see a slight drop in viewership from the inaugural for a few reasons. First, last season had the intrigue of “year one” and a long awaited CFB playoff that drew in fringe audiences. Second, timing of New Year’s Eve, which isn’t a holiday for everyone, plus a 4:00pm kickoff and the evening’s festivities. That said, they’ll still draw strong viewership -- 26 to 27 million viewers -- but a decrease from last year.

Bruin Sports Capital Exec VP David Abrutyn:
Changing the rituals of one of the most celebrated nights of the year will not be easy, but if there is a sport that can take on the daunting task, football is it. However, rituals don’t change overnight and despite having some legendary programs in the games, much of the pregame hype has been missed by non-avid fans as they enjoyed holiday(s) and many will still party tonight. So both games will likely be down, with perhaps the late game being off by more, but the numbers will still be huge and carry the night for ESPN.

Houlihan Lokey Managing Dir Chris Russo:
This year’s CFP semifinal games may secure similar TV ratings vs. last year. However, I believe that total cross-platform viewership this year could be significantly higher, driven in part by the growth in digital consumption and the increased awareness of the CFP format in Year 2. Given the New Year’s Eve time slots, many fans may view a portion of these games via mobile devices (WatchESPN stream). Also, there may be significant out-of-home viewing in restaurants and bars. Hence, it will be important to measure all forms of viewership to gain an accurate measure of success.

FishBait Marketing Founder & CEO Rick Jones:
The numbers are going to be great and maybe even better than expected. The two game times will not pose a problem for folks still wanting to go out and have a traditional New Year’s Eve. We who live in the Eastern Time Zone tend to have that timing bias, but for the rest of the country, even the nightcap game will still be early in the evening.

Desser Sports Media President Ed Desser
Ratings for major sports events are impacted at the margins by numerous factors. In this case, New Year's Eve itself could depress viewership for the second game in particular by 5-10%. Matchups -- including teams, markets, national standing and conferences -- matter as well. Michigan State replacing Ohio State is roughly a push. Same for the early matchup. The Rose Bowl name also is more attractive. Additionally, weather could matter, with a huge storm still moving across the country, keeping people in the more-populated East at home. Finally, game competitiveness keeps viewers tuned in. On balance, I'd expect the audience to be very close to last year, or down a tick.

SJS Sports Founder & CEO Steve Solomon:
The CFP is clearly a huge event, but competing against New Year's Eve programs on many of the major networks, including New Year's Rockin' Eve on ABC, will definitely negatively impact last year's record-breaking ratings. By way of example, last year's  Georgia Tech-Mississippi State matchup on New Year's Eve was the Orange Bowl's second-lowest rating since '93. My guess is tonight's game will be down 7% from last years' Ohio State-Alabama Sugar Bowl, or around 26.6 million viewers.

Fantasy Moguls Exec Chair Geoff Reiss:
The plus side is that fans are far more aware of the playoffs this year than in '14, reflective of both last year’s strong start and a really good marketing push by ESPN. But the down side is that it’s about more than tradition. It’s really hard to completely overcome a huge projected difference in HUT (houses-using-TV) levels between New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve. The bottom line: there will be a far bigger disparity between the early and late game than last year. Orange Bowl gets 24 million viewers this time, while Cotton Bowl gets 27 million.
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