In reaching national title game, Ohio State offers chance to boost challenged TV ratings
Television viewership declined across college football this season, but Monday night’s national championship game offers hope for a ratings hit.
The matchup between Ohio State and Alabama brings two historic powerhouses onto the sport’s biggest stage, forming something close to a best-case scenario for ESPN, which pays $470 million annually for the broadcast rights to the College Football Playoff.
While both programs boast large fan bases, the inclusion of the Buckeyes leaves the biggest reason for optimism from the network. Their semifinal win in the Sugar Bowl ended the prospect of a fourth iteration of Alabama vs. Clemson.
As successful as the Tigers have been in recent seasons, twice winning the national title under the larger-than-life personality of Dabo Swinney, they lack the stature of traditional blue bloods and more closely mirror a small-market professional sports franchise.
“If I were to say Clemson is like the Spurs, Ohio State is more like the Lakers,” said Jon Lewis, who runs Sports Media Watch. “That's the kind of difference in drawing power that we're talking about.”
The most-watched championship game in the playoff era featured Ohio State. Reaching the final in 2014 against Oregon, it attracted 34.1 million viewers.
Even stretching back to include title games from the 15-year Bowl Championship Series era, only the 2006 Rose Bowl classic between Texas and Southern California garnered more eyeballs.
The Buckeyes stand out as a ratings behemoth.
“They are, along with Alabama and to a lesser extent Notre Dame, the biggest draws in college football,” Lewis said.
A few factors contribute to Ohio State’s popularity. Along with a large alumni base that adds to a national following, it has long been one of the sport’s winningest programs.
The Buckeyes won their first national championship in 1942, long before cable television was even a consideration. Since the hiring of Woody Hayes in 1951, OSU rarely has seen a consistent downturn in its program.
The Buckeyes also are based in a populated state that includes three major metropolitan areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. The combined audience from those three cities was major reason the Buckeyes’ previous appearance in the playoff championship game led to more than 30 million viewers.
Columbus was the highest-rated market with a Nielsen rating of 51.2, followed by Dayton (43.8) and Cleveland (41.3). Cincinnati was sixth with a 26.5 rating.
“You have three major-league markets in Ohio, but they're not the kind of major-league markets that would turn up their nose at college football like New York or L.A. might,” Lewis said. “They're major markets, but they're still small enough that they would get really into a college football team like the Buckeyes.”
Still, this season’s championship game is likely to be vulnerable to some of the same challenges that plagued networks throughout the fall.
Between a raging coronavirus pandemic and a contentious U.S. presidential election, viewer attention was divided, reducing the size of the audiences for games, according to industry experts. All major professional sports leagues saw ratings declines in 2020.
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Compounding the challenge for college football was a late start to its season, as well as the pause in the NBA and NHL seasons that pushed their playoffs into September and October, overlapping on the calendar. Even the Masters golf tournament, synonymous with blooming azaleas and magnolias in April, was held on a college football weekend following a springtime postponement.
“There are only so many hours in the day,” said Sports Business Journal managing editor Austin Karp, who covers the sports television industry. “Everyone was very excited like, ‘Oh my God, all these sports are coming back in the fall, and we're going to have such great things to choose from,' but there is eventually a level of fatigue that sets in.
“And it’s just a level of fatigue in watching TV. That's all everyone’s been able to do these last couple of months.”
According to figures kept by Sports Media Watch, only four college football games during the regular season drew at least 7 million viewers, only one-third as many as in 2019. The semifinals also were the least-watched of any of the six to air on New Year’s Day in the playoff era.
But Monday’s night title game in suburban Miami offers the potential for a course correction, a contest pitting two of the sport’s powers against each other, and blending a mix of star players that include Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the recently named Heisman Trophy winner, and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who is expected to be a top selection in this year’s NFL draft.
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The Buckeyes also are the first team from outside the South to reach the final since their last appearance, six years ago. Karp hopes the matchup could draw as many as 23 million viewers, perhaps more if the game is competitive.
Such a mark would be lower than previous championship games in the playoff era, all of which have drawn at least 25 million viewers, but it would be only a modest decline.
Amid recent circumstances and challenges for the industry, that could still be viewed as a win.