How Much Money The Horrible College Football Playoff Ratings Cost ESPN

When the highest-rated programs are tallied every year, you’re always going to find football games on it, so it makes sense for networks to envision some of the biggest games of the year drawing in hordes of howling fans. But ESPN severely overshot its confidence that people would spend their New Year’s Eve with the College Football Playoffs, and both semifinal games’ terrible ratings mean the network has to provide around $20 million to advertisers in ad makegoods.

The Thursday night games, Alabama/Michigan St. and Clemson/Oklahoma, were watched by 15.6 million and 18.5 million, respectively. Certainly not numbers to scoff at, but they were both down around 40% compared to last year’s duo, and were watched by far fewer viewers than ESPN and the College Football Playoff Committee hoped. Perhaps ESPN was expecting such a disaster, though, as the network held off on selling ad spots during an NFL playoff game this past weekend, as well as during tonight’s National Championship between Alabama and Clemson. Those spots were filled up with ads from some of those jilted last week, but they won’t cover the entire amount owed, and getting a make-up ad after the fact messes with the timeliness of some company’s promos.

Holidays are generally good days for sports ratings, but New Year’s Eve is a day when many people are out of the house for one reason or another, and ESPN should have probably been more realistic about its expectations and projections for advertisers. Charging rates as high as $1.3 million for 30-second spots should have been immediately shut down, but I guess it’s good that it happened once, so that the execs can use this as a cautionary tale for future playoff games.

As well they should, since 7 of the next 10 playoff series games will take place on New Year’s Eve, a factor that some are trying to change, according to Broadcasting Cable. But that likely won’t be altered in the near future, as those in charge aren’t swayed by this year’s lower-than-expected turnout. After all, if next year’s games feature teams with huge national followings, that would definitely help to bring in those who weren’t personally invested in victories from Alabama and/or Clemson. And it would help if next year’s games aren’t total blowouts from the ground running, as well.

College football ratings have risen in recent years, though they’ll likely never reach the audiences of a Super Bowl from even the worst teams. As such, ESPN probably shouldn’t pretend the college playoffs are worthy of similarly high price tags. Okay, so Super Bowl commercial rates eclipsed $1.3 million years ago, but still.

Will this year’s National Championship find a huge audience, and could it possibly match last year’s record numbers? Find out when it airs on ESPN at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.