Column: College football is wise not to tackle New Year’s Eve traditions

By Geoff Baker - The Seattle Times

So maybe New Year’s Eve truly is best left to party hats, streamers and bad drinking decisions.

At least, that appears the case after the two College Football Playoff semifinal games on New Year’s Day saw a significant television-ratings jump compared with the previous two years of New Year’s Eve experiments. Last Monday’s games drew a combined 13.9 percent overnight rating, up 26 percent from a season ago and 42 percent over the previous year.

Georgia’s thrilling, double-overtime victory over Oklahoma was up 29 percent over last season’s early-day Huskies loss to Alabama. And Alabama’s victory over Clemson in last Monday’s nightcap was up 19 percent over last season’s second semifinal.

The viewership numbers still weren’t as high as when the inaugural two semifinals took place on New Year’s Day three years ago. But they were no doubt a welcome respite for ESPN, which paid a record $7.3 billion over 12 years for the rights to the two semifinal games and the championship matchup.

Still, this was hardly an unexpected development. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl — sites of this year’s semifinals — were the same locales where the top ratings were drawn on New Year’s Day three years ago. It’s the stuff that happens in years when the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl aren’t hosting playoff games that tends to be the issue.

This all stemmed from an inability of college football and its overlords to get their collective scheduling act together before going for a major-bowl cash grab. The onset of a playoff system meant the six big bowls typically held on New Year’s Day get to rotate as semifinal hosts every three years.

Now, when you have a playoff system, the other big bowl games not designated for semifinals will tend to suffer due to being of lesser importance. Hence, the rotation system used to spread some of the wealth around.

The easy solution would have been to automatically hold the semifinals Jan. 1 and make all of the lesser bowls go earlier.

But the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl committees, knowing their games would be reduced in importance two of every three years, have insisted on keeping their designated New Year’s Day time slots. Something about the historical significance of holding their games on those dates — read: they risked losing money.

Those bowls salvaged their ratings time slots but risked hurting a still-fledging CFP system by drawing viewers away from the semifinal games to which billions of TV dollars have been paid.

In their wisdom, conference commissioners promised to “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve” by scheduling semifinals on that date during seasons when the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl weren’t playoff hosts. They hoped to create “destination viewing” in a previously untapped Dec. 31 time slot when most folks were preparing to go out and party.

If successful, they’d create a big-time TV sporting event both on that day as well as the national championship a week or so later. Sort of like getting to stage two Super Bowls, or something like that. Hey, who doesn’t like to dream big?

Well, as anyone who actually goes out on New Year’s Eve might expect, the decision bombed.

Two years ago, TV ratings plummeted 45 percent for the Cotton Bowl and 34 percent for the Orange Bowl as semifinal hosts compared with their showings the previous year. To make matters worse, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl were blowout games Jan. 1 and saw their ratings drop.

It was a disaster all around and prompted some changes.

Though there was nothing that could be done about blowout games, the CFP committee in 2016 decided playoffs would be held on New Year’s Eve only when it fell on a weekend or holiday weeknight. Two years ago, the semifinals were held on Thursday, which meant football fans had yet to even get off work when the first semifinal began.

The changes worked out somewhat a season ago, with the ratings boost for the two New Year’s Eve games played on a Saturday. Partygoers were still getting dressed up and attending events before midnight, but at least they weren’t stuck in office cubicles and had some access to televisions.

Still, as last Monday’s results have likely shown — and let’s face it, the Alabama-Clemson game had fizzled out by the third quarter — there’s no destination TV quite like New Year’s Day when it comes to college football.

We thankfully won’t have to endure any more New Year’s Eve semifinals for nearly four more years — until Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, officially a work holiday because New Year’s Day falls on a weekend. The next three years, the playoffs take place Dec. 29, Dec. 28 and Jan. 1 when the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl again get their rotation turns.

It’s not anybody’s idea of a perfect solution. But it’s the next-best way for college football’s cash grab to have a shot at working for everybody with skin in the game.

New Year’s Eve as destination college-football viewing? Probably officially retired as a concept after last week.


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By Geoff Baker

The Seattle Times