By Ralph Russo (AP) – The College Football Playoff is considering moving future semifinals off New Year’s Eve after television ratings for last season’s games plunged.
Executive director Bill Hancock told reporters at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, that the conference commissioners who make up the playoff management committee are open to changing future schedules, starting in 2019 when the semifinals are scheduled for New Year’s Eve, and are exploring options.
“Our goal is to find the best day when the most people can watch the games,” Hancock said Wednesday.
It was a very different message from Hancock than the one he initially delivered after ESPN’s rating for this past season’s College Football Playoff semifinals fell 36 percent from the year before, when the games were played on New Year’s Day. Hancock said in January that several factors could have contributed to the ratings drop and gave no indication the commissioners were ready to change course.
The first College Football Playoff after the 2014 season drew record television ratings for ESPN. The first game, the Rose Bowl, kicked off around 5:30 p.m. ET. Last year was the first of a scheduled eight times during a 12-year contract with ESPN that the semifinals were to be played on New Year’s Eve, which fell on a Thursday.
The Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma started around 4:30 p.m. ET (3:30 p.m. Central in Oklahoma), when many people are still at work on what is not a federal holiday.
The playoff semifinals are on New Year’s Eve again this season, but Dec. 31, 2016, falls on a Saturday. The semifinals return to New Year’s Day after the 2017 season (Jan. 1, 2018).
“We are in constant communication with our partners at the College Football Playoff. We are both invested in making this event as fan-friendly as possible,” Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN vice president of college sports programming, said in a statement to The AP.
After last season’s games, Hancock said when the semifinals were played was one of several possible factors that caused TV ratings to fall. Neither the Clemson-Oklahoma game nor Michigan State-Alabama matchup in the Cotton Bowl were close in the fourth quarter. Plus, the matchups for the first semifinals, which included two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks (Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston of Florida State), along with Ohio State and Alabama, were particularly appealing and set an almost impossible standard for the second playoff to match. Also, ESPN’s digital platforms drew more viewers in year two.
Hancock said all the factors would be studied, but never hinted the College Football Playoff would give serious consideration to moving off New Year’s Eve semifinals. Hancock had said playoff officials were hoping to start a new tradition on New Year’s Eve.
But the drop in TV viewership was more drastic than expected, and now there is a real possibility for change.
The first sign came a few months back when the College Football Playoff announced it was moving up the kickoff for this year’s first semifinal to 3 p.m. ET and that the Orange Bowl, originally scheduled to be played before the semifinals on Dec. 31, would instead be held on Friday night Dec. 30.
This year’s semifinals will be played at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.