New Year’s Day versus New Year’s Eve. A/B testing. A great way to optimize your results.

The problem: This isn’t a test. And it’s a $7,300,000,000 investment.

ESPN and the College Football Playoff have a decade left to go with the new status quo, despite an awful, initial result.

The initial result: Television ratings for the College Football Playoff semifinals fell nearly 40% from last year’s inaugural games.

A key difference: The games were played on New Year’s Eve this year, rather than New Year’s Day.

Here’s a rundown on the situation.

College Football Playoff Semifinal TV Ratings Drop Nearly 40%

Last year saw the start of a 4-team College Football Playoff. The first- and fourth-ranked teams face off. The second- and third-ranked teams play. Then the winners of the two games play for the National Championship a week or so later.

This year saw the start of those semifinal games being played on New Year’s Eve, rather than New Year’s Day.

And the results aren’t pretty.

Early Game
Last Year: Rose Bowl – Florida State vs Oregon – 14.8 rating
This Year: Orange Bowl – Clemson vs Oklahoma – 9.1 rating
Difference: Rating down 38.5%, viewer count down 44.5%

Even Twitter results on this game fell.
Last Year: 10.1 million people saw one or more of 2.6 million tweets.
This Year: 6.5 million people saw one or more of 487,000 tweets.

Those are 34% and 81.2% drops, respectively. But they still beat tweets on this year’s late game – 5.8 million impressions on 464,000 tweets.

As for television …

Late Game
Last Year: Cotton Bowl – Ohio State vs Alabama – 15.2 rating
This Year: Cotton Bowl – Michigan State vs Alabama – 9.6 rating
Difference: Rating down 36.8%, viewer count down 34.4%


UPDATE (Jan 8, 2016): Per Broadcasting & Cable, media buyers are seeking $20,000,000 in make goods for advertisers as a consequence of these ratings. Story


Didn’t They See This Coming?

As always, there are several factors at play here. There’s no sole reason for the dramatic drop in ratings and viewers.

Last year’s early game featured the Heisman Trophy winner, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

Last year’s late game wasn’t the 38-0 blowout this year’s was as underdog Ohio State won by a touchdown in a closely contested game.

And last year’s semifinal games were two of the highest rated cable television events ever.

The effect of increased streaming of live content like these bowl games isn’t fully captured in television ratings.

Still … couldn’t we all see this coming?

In short: Yes!

Per Sports Business Journal, ESPN saw double digit drops coming last year.

ESPN’s also battling contracts with the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, conflicts with NFL playoff expansion, and competition with New Year’s Eve countdown shows on ABC, as well as other networks.

“Privately, ESPN insiders say they are prepared for double-digit drops in viewership if the semifinals remain on New Year’s Eve.” – John Ourand & Michael Smith, SBJ/SBD

Ourand, SBJ’s Media Reporter, shared several interesting insights on Twitter yesterday. Among them …

Twitter, John Ourand, media, reporter, journalist, Sports Business Journal, SBJ, ESPN, College Football Playoff, CFP


Reinvention and New Tradition

The ESPN and the College Football Playoff are also fighting cultural history.

New Year’s Day has been synonymous with college football bowl games for decades. For generations.

New Year’s Eve? Not so much.

Be honest: Were you sneaking peeks at screens large and small while honoring commitments to spouses, significant others, family members, and friends? And that’s just during the late game!

Were you sneaking looks at screens large and small during the first half of the early game because you were at work?

Those in the know expect you were. And they expect to forge a new tradition and “reinvent New Year’s Eve”.

“This will change habits. There’s no doubt that for true fans this will change behavior.” – Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s SVP for Global Research and Analytics in the New York Times

That’s definitely an uphill battle.

UPDATE (Jan 8, 2016): ESPN’s definitely caught in the middle on this one; the $20,000,000 give back is theirs to give back. Meanwhile CFP’s executive director says things like this: “We don’t make decisions based on television numbers. I don’t have a TV number that influences my measurable for success.” Source


$7.3 Billion to Reach “True Fans”

Is this hubris or plausibility? Will a new tradition be forged?

The NFL has Thanksgiving. The NBA’s building up on Christmas.

Will the College Football Playoff claim New Year’s Eve? Only time will tell, but the early test delivered a bad result.

If advertisers are willing to cover the $7.3 billion investment with sufficient bets on :30 spots, it’ll all be fine.


The A/B Test Continues

Because of ESPN’s contracts with the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, 3 of the next 10 College Football Playoff semifinals will be held on New Year’s Day.

See that schedule here.

We’ll have years off-and-on with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Over the next decade, the test will have a definitive result: hubris or genius.


Related Links

Featured Image: “Over The Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball 2013 – 2014” by Anthony Quintano on Flickr, Shared with Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0

USA Today “Ratings plunge for New Year’s Eve College Football Playoff

New York Times “With College Football Playoff, ESPN Plans to Reinvent New Year’s Eve

Sports Business Journal “ESPN, NFL lobby for changes in College Football Playoff calendar

CNN Money “ESPN’s $7.3 billion college football playoff gamble pays off

Broadcasting & Cable “Media Buyers, ESPN Negotiating $20M in Bowl Game Ad Makegoods


Quick Thanks

A quick thanks to friend and television professional Nick Matesi, General Manager of Gray Television‘s KKTV in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

His comment on one of my Facebook posts yesterday about the ratings drop spurred me to write this post and use the hubris/genius question by using the word … “hubris.”

Again, time will tell, but I agree with Nick.