Hardcore college football fans across the country undoubtedly will be tuned in for the College Football Playoff. But what about casual fans outside SEC, ACC and Big 12 country?
With the Pac-12 and Big Ten not represented in the four-team playoff, a TV sports viewership analyst said interest could be tempered on the West Coast, upper Midwest and Northeast.
The campuses of Clemson, Georgia and Alabama are in close proximity in the Southeast — Clemson and Georgia are just 75 miles apart. Oklahoma is the outlier, a good day’s drive west of Alabama.
“I think it’s too regional this year,” said Jon Lewis, editor of Sports Media Watch. “That hurts in every sport — unless it’s the Super Bowl.”
That said, Lewis expects a potential loss of viewership could be offset because the semifinals will be played on New Year’s Day, the traditional college football holiday. The last two years the semifinals were on New Year’s Eve, when the games competed with parties and other celebrations.
An additional boost might come from the Alabama-Clemson semifinal in the Sugar Bowl being a rematch of the last two national championship games.
But, Lewis said, “I still think the numbers are going to be well short of the first year of the playoff.”
In 2015, the inaugural playoff semifinals matching Oregon-Florida State and Ohio State-Alabama each drew better than 28 million viewers on ESPN, according to the Nielsen company. The Oregon-Ohio State title game had 33.4 million.
Viewership the last two years ranged from 15.5 million to 19.8 million for the New Year’s Eve semifinals, and the Clemson-Alabama title games drew 26.7 million in 2016 and 26 million in 2017.
Los Angeles sports radio host Petros Papadakis acknowledged the regional flavor of the playoff — “I hope Oklahoma can at least strike a blow for the people west of the Mississippi,” he joked — but said he didn’t think it would put a damper on fans’ enthusiasm nationally.
“Call me crazy, but I think we’ve reached a point in our society where football fans put football on,” Papadakis said. “If there is live football and it’s a big game that’s on, people are watching. … I really do feel like the College Football Playoff is transcendent like the Super Bowl, where people are just going to watch because it’s championship-level football.”
Still, Lewis said it can’t be overlooked that much of the nation is left with no rooting interest. He noted the Big Ten and Pac-12 have larger geographic footprints (never mind the Big 12’s eastern outpost of West Virginia) and there is some overlap between the SEC and ACC.
“It’s good to have the SEC represented. I don’t know that it’s good to have two SEC teams represented,” Lewis said. “And when you talk about the conferences, the Big 12, ACC and SEC are very similar in terms of their makeup, in terms of their regions. You don’t want it to be too regional.”
An interesting test will be the Rose Bowl, where the traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup gives way to the playoff semifinal between Oklahoma and Georgia.
Papadakis said the Rose Bowl obviously would have more local interest if Southern California or UCLA were participating, but the fact the game is a playoff makes it intriguing.
“The key for the Rose Bowl is that they’re big, blue-blooded traditional college football programs,” he said. “As long as it’s a big blue blood, people will come out to Los Angeles and the game will feel big. There are so many transplants in LA, and I would argue there are more Georgia and Oklahoma people in this town than Oregon people who would come to the game.”
Brandon Heideman, who bartends at The Lodge Sports Grille in Seattle, said there was standing-room only at his establishment last year when the hometown Washington Huskies were in the playoff. The absence of a Pac-12 team in this year’s playoff, let alone the Huskies, probably will temper enthusiasm.
“As long as someone in the Pac-12 is playing in a game, we’re very busy,” Heideman said. “We’ll have more people than usual in here for the playoff, but it won’t be like it was last year.”
Ali Jones, a bartender at Bunkers Sports Bar and Grill in Dayton, Ohio, said she and her patrons are disappointed Ohio State didn’t make the final four. Still, she expects a full house for the semifinals and the Jan. 8 final and that folks probably will be pulling for Oklahoma, which beat the Buckeyes in the regular season.
What about Alabama, the team that edged out the Buckeyes for a playoff spot?
“We won’t be rolling any Tides over here,” Jones said.