Kelly Scott Madison

Scoring the NCAA’s College Football Playoff



Scoring the NCAA's College Football Playoff in its second year 

The NCAA College Football Playoff’s championship game had the makings of a major motion picture this year. A sequel to last year’s matchup between Clemson and Alabama provided the opportunity for redemption. It was a thrilling game with trick plays, a key injury, lead changes and a last second victory by the Tigers.

So why were the national championship ratings down for the second straight year? It’s a question that becomes even more confusing when considering that the two semifinal games airing on New Year’s Eve saw a lift in ratings, even though both were blowouts. One major difference is that this holiday was on a Saturday and the national championship game came on a Monday night. Games played on a Saturday or a holiday cast a wider net by capturing more of the casual college football audience.

Keeping with this logic, the college playoff’s management committee has opted to move future New Year’s Eve semifinal games that fall on weekdays to Saturdays in 2018, 2019, 2024 and 2025 to maximize ratings potential with its 12-year ESPN broadcast contract. One exception is the semifinal game on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, which is a federally observed holiday. With that said, it seems obvious that the same scheduling adjustment should be considered for the championship game as well. However, as it currently stands, it does not appear that the NCAA will heed this advice.

But beyond ratings and timing, why should brands care about this environment? A recent Nielsen research study found “more than 159 million people tuned in to at least one minute of a college football game during the 2016 regular season alone—about a 3 percent increase over the regular 2015 college football season.” That number represents just over half of the U.S. TV population. The sport’s popularity is also fairly balanced across the U.S. with some pockets of high concentration in areas that have historically successful football teams in the South and Midwest. Not only is this audience geographically expansive, it is also inclusive across age segments, genders and ethnicities. As if that wasn’t already ideal, the college football fan base skews toward a more affluent and educated audience. 

In other words, for advertisers looking to reach a TV viewing audience in a live and engaged format, college football may be considered a crucial element for their media strategy. Top national advertisers AT&T, Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell, Nissan and Geico are spending millions of ad dollars to sponsor college football. Common sense would suggest that these brands don’t need to target an affluent audience, but the reach of this audience and their demographic comprehensiveness makes them...

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