SBJ/Jan. 19-25, 2015/Media

With record-setting year in books, what next for CFP title game?

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E SPN executives couldn’t have asked for a better start for their College Football Playoff championship. The inaugural title game attracted cable’s biggest audience ever, the network’s ad inventory sold out and AT&T Stadium was packed. But how big a success was it?

In the days that followed Ohio State’s victory over Oregon, I fielded several questions from people wondering about the event’s future.

> Did the TV viewership fall short of expectations?

SBJ Podcast:
Michael Smith and John Ourand assess the first College Football Playoff National Championship Game and what can be expected next year.

No. How could a game that sets a cable TV viewership record — becoming the first cable show to eclipse 30 million viewers — fall short of expectations? The 33.395 million viewers set a record, topping the second-place telecast by nearly 20 percent. The number was viewed as disappointing in some corners because some pregame predictions guessed that the TV audience would be bigger than 40 million viewers, but if you talk to the people who really care about viewership — the ad buyers — they are happy with the results.
 
As media reporter Anthony Crupi tweeted last week, the game delivered one-third of the Super Bowl’s rating at one-fourth of the cost for advertisers, who were paying an average of between $800,000 and $1 million per 30-second spot in the championship game.

This good ratings news could be short-lived, as next year’s semifinals will be played on New Year’s Eve, when TV viewership levels are down. Internally, some ESPN executives are bracing for a double-digit ratings drop around the semis. The question is how much that drop will affect the championship game’s numbers next year.

> What does this mean for ad sales next year?

Ad sales should remain strong for the next three years, especially with the College Football Playoff’s 15 integrated sponsors signing multiyear deals with ESPN. These sponsors, such as Dr Pepper, are guaranteed around six units in each championship game telecast over the next three years, sources said.

This year, ad sales proved to be brisk in what has been a sluggish market overall for TV. A source said ESPN sold its final ad spot three days before kickoff. Even before the TV numbers came out, some advertisers were saying that they remained bullish about the game’s growth prospects. Rob Temple, ESPN’s senior vice president of sports management, said he booked business and renewed deals on-site for the next year. “I’ve worked on six Olympics, World Cups, Final Fours, and I’ve never been to an event where every single client came up and said, ‘Congrats. We want to do more,’” Temple said.

> Is ESPN’s Megacast here to stay?

Yes. ESPN launched the Megacast last season around the final BCS championship, putting different game productions on its channels. Viewers could watch the main telecast, or they could watch coaches discuss strategy, or they could watch a group of well-known sports fans talk about the game. This year, the shows on ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNews and ESPN Deportes added another 743,000 viewers to the game.

“People used to be so worried about cannibalizing the main event,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions. “We’ve done a 180 with our thinking on it. So many fans watch games with a second screen in front of them. We’re providing a second-screen experience, even if it may not be the second screen.”

We probably won’t see a Megacast around the Super Bowl any time soon unless the NFL relaxes its digital rights — but Turner found success with its Teamcast around the Final Four, and Fox Sports was happy with the results from a side-by-side telecast of the NLCS Game 1 on Fox Sports 1. I expect other leagues to look into these types of productions.

> Can the game become as big as the Super Bowl?

Not any time soon. The days before the championship game provided a feeling like it was a big event, but on a much, much smaller scale than Super Bowl week. “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt, a veteran of many big-time sports events, said the atmosphere in Dallas reminded him more of a Final Four than a Super Bowl. He arrived in town the Tuesday before the game, when virtually nobody was around. “I felt like I was a pharmaceutical sales rep in Fort Worth on a bender,” he said. “It felt in no way socially like a Super Bowl.”

Still, with concerts, fan fests and events peppering the days before the game, it’s clear that the championship game has lots of room for growth.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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