While much has been made of the NFL's continuing ratings slide, the big moment for the collegiate game is drawing nigh.
The College Football Playoff rings in 2018 with the semifinal match-ups pitting Oklahoma-Georgia in the Rose Bowl at 5 p.m. ET Jan. 1 and Clemson-Alabama in the Sugar Bowl nightcap at 8:45 p.m. The winners will meet Jan. 8 in the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta at 8 p.m.
Going into year four of a 12-year rights deal — ESPN Inc. has allocated $7.3 billion over the term for the semifinals and title tilt as well as four other "contract" bowls that are part of the playoff rotation — Walt Disney Co.'s sports programming arm returns to a similar set-up that produced the three most-watched telecasts in cable history on ESPN (US).
The inaugural College Football Playoff featured the semifinals on New Year's Day in 2015: Oregon's rout that Jan. 1 of then-defending national champion Florida State tackled 28.2 million viewers in the Rose Bowl, a total soon supplanted by the 28.3 million viewers who watched Ohio State's upset of Alabama that night in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State's drubbing of Oregon in the Jan. 12 championship contest that year drew a cable TV record audience of 33.4 million watchers.
Since then, the two subsequent pairs of semifinal contests have squared up against dinners, noisemakers and countdown shows on New Year's Eve, a calendar and ratings match-up that the NFL elected to punt on, as NBC (US) will not close out the 2017 regular season with a "Sunday Night Football" telecast.
The second CFP semifinals on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, scored 15.7 million viewers for Clemson-Oklahoma and 18.6 million for Alabama-Michigan. The third CFP semifinals on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, produced 19.3 million viewers for Alabama-Washington in the afternoon on ESPN and ESPN2 (US) and 19.2 million on those networks for Clemson's 31-0 shellacking of Ohio State that night.
This year, there will be no CFP semifinals to conflict with "Auld Lang Syne" singers and revelers. But unlike the first CFP semifinal go-round on Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, that benefited from a national holiday for most that Friday, many will be heading back to work this Jan. 2. That may curtail the audience for the marquee part of the doubleheader, the third consecutive CFP meeting between Alabama and Clemson. The late kickoff will push the finish past midnight on the east coast, which could diminish the overall audience average, especially if it turns out to be a one-sided affair.
How intriguing will the Alabama-Clemson rubber match, this time in the semifinal, prove to viewers? Or will fan fatigue set in on this southern match-up?
Nick Saban's team won the 2016 title game 45-40, before Dabo Sweeney's Tigers reversed the tide by a 35-31 count in the final seconds in 2017. Those championship games, boosted by MegaCast ratings contributions from ESPN2, ESPNU (US) and ESPN Deportes (US), generated 26.2 million viewers and 25.3 million viewers, respectively.
This year, ESPN is flanking its traditional semifinal telecasts with the MegaCast treatment: There will be 10 additional presentations across ESPN2, ESPNews (US), ESPN Goal Line, SEC Network (US), ESPN Deportes and broadband portal ESPN3. All are also accessible via the ESPN app.
ESPN, which tested the technology at this year's Celebration Bowl, will also display a camera inside the first-down-marker at the Sugar Bowl for the first time. It will provide viewers with a unique vantage point of the teams trying to gain that line.