What do fewer eyeballs on college football mean?

Richard Deitsch takes a look at broadcast numbers for the just concluded 2017 regular season and reports a decline.

Per Karp, here’s where the networks finished for average viewership for this year’s CFB regular season:

CBS: 4.951 million viewers, down 10% from 5.489 million in 2016.

ABC: 4.203 million, down 18% from 5.097 million.

Fox: 3.625 million, up 23% from 2.951 million.

NBC: 2.742, down 3% from 2.814 million.

ESPN: 2.155 million, down 6% from 2.300 million.

FS1: 819,000, up 4% from 743,000.

Some interesting thoughts from Karp in the piece: CBS’s SEC package was the most-viewed individual package for the ninth straight CFB season, but this year’s average was its lowest in well over a decade. ABC’s Saturday Night Football was down 4% from 2016, even though its window remained college football’s most-viewed window with 5.7 million viewers. ESPN was easily the most-viewed cable net for CFB—it has the most games so that lowers its average—but was down with fewer Big Ten matchups. FS1’s average was its best since the network launched but below what the cable net FX averaged for its games in ’11 (1.01 million viewers).

Let’s cut to the chase here:  is it panic time?  Well, far be it from me to speak for the geniuses who run the sport, but Karp seems to suggest that while the numbers are an indication of a problem, it’s not an existential one.

“I don’t think that meant less interest in college football,” Karp said. “If anything, I’d say the interest was higher this season compared to some prior years. If you look at total minutes viewed for college football, it had to be some sort of record this year. There were some really exciting matchups and Fox Sports really stepped up their game this year—the company’s first with the Big Ten regular season lineup. You could often find three college football windows on the Fox broadcast window this season, which never happened before. With a healthy dose on FS1, they are making themselves a destination for college football now. But this is a zero-sum game, particularly as it relates to the Power Five conferences. Fox Sports’ gain was ABC/ESPN’s loss, as the new Big Ten contracts meant Bristol had fewer options with regard to top teams. While Saturday Night Football on ABC still got some bigger matchups, there were just fewer options for Saturday afternoon windows. As good as a team like UCF was this season, matchups from the AAC just aren’t moving the needle.

“For CBS, the SEC was just too top heavy this season,” Karp continued. “They had some bad matchups on the network. Alabama is still a draw, but there is a limit on the number of Alabama games the network can air, and Georgia-Florida or any Tennessee game just aren’t what they used to be. For NBC, Notre Dame fans just didn’t watch early in the season, expecting some sort of repeat of 2016’s debacle. But NBC saw improvement over the last three game telecasts. I’d say college football fans were winners this season. There are options galore on TV, and that doesn’t even include improvement on the streaming front. Networks like CBS and ESPN need to see improvement from some big-time programs like Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Nebraska and maybe even an Oregon. That would increase the availability of bigger games for those networks.”

The SEC in particular hasn’t been doing CBS any favors of late.  When it’s mid-November and the schedule lines up to present Kentucky at Georgia as your game of the week, you haven’t been trying that hard to make sure your customers are getting prime matchups.  Sure, having more programs with a pulse certainly helps, but anybody looking at that week before the start of the season could have sensed that the conference wasn’t putting its best face forward then.

It’s not just CBS, of course.  Overall, this season has struck me on more than one occasion as one in which the networks loaded up primo games — as in plural — in the same time slot.  Some of that is no doubt due to schools and conferences trying to accommodate their fan bases who actually attend the games (quaint, I know), but you can’t help but question if there are other factors in play.

Aside from the top-heavy nature of this season’s landscape, as well as a certain amount of inept scheduling, I wonder if there are any other issues worth considering.  Those of you who swing right politically would no doubt cite ESPN’s social media missteps this season as a factor, although there’s a certain amount of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face involved with that.

I, though, think about whether we’re witnessing a certain canary in the coal mine doing a little chirping.  Deitsch prefaces his piece with the observation that “College football is a tougher game to analyze for ratings experts given a number of factors including the innate regionalism of the sport…” and it seems fair to ask if ESPN’s relentless promotion of the college football playoffs is already having an unintended, yet inevitable, impact on fans’ interest in the regular season.

Left to consider, then, are what the broadcast numbers for the playoffs look like and whether the conferences and the networks can get their collective acts together next season.  Maybe some better conclusions can be drawn then.


Filed under College Football, ESPN Is The Devil, Fox Sports Numbs My Brain

28 responses to “What do fewer eyeballs on college football mean?

  1. Biggus Rickus

    As far as the SEC goes, it’s clearly a problem of shitty matchups and Florida and Tennessee fans more or less giving up on the season early.


    • Uglydawg

      Yep..you take out the enthusiasm of those two fan bases alone and it explains a lot of the slack off. Throw in a bad start for Missouri, a bad year for Arkansas, A&M, etc. and there you have some tv’s turned off. Add to that the blow outs by ‘Bama and UGA, and you might have a lot of people tuning out early.
      Also, who want’s to watch the cupcake match ups? Better scheduling will mean more interest.
      And cut down on the commercials..and good grief, get more than just a couple of good game announcers.


  2. Someone show this to Clay Travis. I’d love to hear him spin it.


  3. 81Dog

    It doesn’t seem that complicated to me. CBS had the SEC, NBC had ND, ESPN/ABC had the rest…..but now Fox is cutting into the market. Everyone is trying to flood the airwaves with more games, which may contribute to more overall eyeballs on college football, but it cannibalizes the share available for any one game or any one conference. ESPN, in particular, boomed on the front end, when it was the market leader (or maybe, the market controller). The brass saw the market as only going up, so it locked down rights long term and figured they could just raise the price. But, in the way of markets, the market responded. Other carriers started picking off what they could, the NFL started putting games on Thursday nights, marginal viewers decided the additional cost wasn’t worth the benefit and cut the cord, and yes, some viewers have found themselves unhappy with the non-football aspects of ESPN. It may be the death of 1000 paper cuts, but you cant keep losing market share and expect to make the same amount of ad revenue. Sports programming is simply a bridge for ads to the suits in the executive suite. Suckers like us care about the programs, so we put up with the dancing start times, interminable tv timeouts, and other concessions ADs make to the check writers in order to keep the real money flowing. But, at some point, a viewer hits his limit. If enough viewers hit their limit, revenue starts to drop. The reasons may vary: inconvenient times, bad matchups, better alternatives, political disagreements, or just too much cost for not enough value. But add them all up and it spells trouble for the suits at ESPN, and the ADs hooked on the easy TV money.

    maybe UGA can go back to playing games at 1 pm, as the Big Dog intended.


  4. Macallanlover

    Blowouts were certainly a significant issue for CBS but the bigger issue is the overlapping of so many key games. While this is inevitable given the number of key games relative to the available time on Saturdays, there are always 2-3 weekends every season that are stinkers on a national basis. Some negotiation with their conference partners could help. With dollars in hands, explain the need for a minimum number of conference games each weekend, the need for a 9 game conference schedule, why FCS games are bad for both TV fans and those in the stadium, and improve the Thursday/Friday night lineup by paying bonus dollars for better games.

    The fall off of quality Thursday night games was dramatic this season versus prior years. I once kept Thursday evenings open to enjoy one, or two, interesting games most every week; this season I am not sure there was more than one game I gave a glance at the entire year. Friday’s lineup, while fairly weak, was much better than Thursdays this year, thank you PAC12. And let’s face it, we cannot change the time difference between East and West Coasts, Thursday and Fridays represent a partial solution (it isn’t like you are going to hurt their attendance much.) You have to have some real clunkers to lose me from a night of CFB.


  5. Fans just aren’t watching because of all of the kneeling …


  6. Stoopnagle

    ESPN puts too many good games on at the same time. While not all these were on ESPN’s networks, in week two OU-tOSU, UGA-ND, Clemson-AU, and Stanford-USC all went against each other/overlapped. I’m pretty sure you could go through every week and find the same problem. Marquee games all on at the same time. Dumb!


    • Macallanlover

      Simply not enough time slots, but they could certainly do better. I loved our early night games, the players seem too as well, but we did get put against some excellent games that I missed. Just cannot do anything about it, but spacing games through out the season would help. There are usually 2 weekends a season where everyone is cupcake city. I really haven’t watch OU much because of the schedule, going to dial them up on YouTube to see them since there aren’t any CFB options left to interferes.


  7. Greg

    Only a Georgia fan would love our season this year. The only compelling TV viewing for the average fan was the ND game on NBC. Every other game for UGA was either a huge blowout or at least a comfortable win. From the CBS perspective, the East has just got to get better from top to bottom. The West wasn’t up to its standards this year either – Troy made LSU an afterthought, TAMU and Arky struggled and fired their coaches. Miss State got crushed early by UGA and AU yet they were generally considered the 4th best team in the conference for most of the year.


    • I think we need to scrap divisions in the SEC. It has essentially fragmented into 2 conferences because of the infrequency of cross-divisional play. And one of those “conferences” stinks to high heaven.

      I would argue that UGA fans would scream less about the Sanfords and App States if you gave them LSU and Alabama as often as Vanderbilt and Kentucky.


  8. FisheriesDawg

    The playoff ratings will be way up given that the games are back on NYD. Comparing it to last year would be apples to oranges, so they’ll need to do some sort of adjustment to compare it to the 2015 playoff.


    • Macallanlover

      Have to factor in another adjustment for the butt-hurt Great Lakes and West Coast areas since they might boycott the playoffs (well, not too much of a factor since the West Coast is always boycotting something anyway, and they usually don’t watch or attend CFB games). Now a real boycott will be if UGA/Bama is the title game the following week!


      • Joe Schmoe

        That’s a pretty ironic statement given that it’s the right wingers who are boycotting the NFL over the pledge of allegiance protests.


  9. DawgPhan

    This has always been the argument. Playoffs meant less meaningful regular season. Playoff proponents always said the loss in regular season would be minimal and covered by growth in playoff interest.

    Playoff opponents said the losses in regular season interest would not be covered by playoff growth.

    It will be interesting to see how the playoff ratings come in this year.

    The schools are definitely making more money right now.


  10. Not panic but people aren’t attending as much. I see it each season across every sport.

    I totally get why security was the way it was but I’ll discontinue our season tickets the day it takes every second of 45 minutes it took us to get into MBS. F that!

    Security fears, costs, concession prices, bathroom and concession lines, conveniences of home, better tv coverage, etc, etc. There are a lot of reasons to not attend in person now.


  11. old dawg

    I love CFB but I think we hit the saturation point a few years back…if you can hang with it, you can watch 3 games on Saturday…if you live out west, you can catch a Pac 12 game and go to bed by midnight…that’s a lot of football.

    meanwhile the NFL has added Sunday Night, Monday Night, Thursday Night and the usual Sunday afternoon…throw in their recent political posturing and I’ve cut the NFL back to starvation rations…I’ll go rake leaves and they can have their game.

    back to CFB…I can only handle so much for so long…I love chocolate cake and I’ve never had all I want but I have had all I could stand at one time. 😉


    • Borodawg

      I’m only 44 but I don’t watch near as much football as I used to. In fact, now I would prefer to watch the highlights on youtube. Would rather spend time with my family (my twins graduate high school in 3 years) or working on the lathe making bowls.
      Side note……….I don’t have ESPN so that makes watching games less attractive and totally screws up watching bowl games.


    • Macallanlover

      I watch from 10 AM until about 2 AM every Saturday, usually get 4 full games in, plus partials of 3 more….depends on which ones become blowouts early, or if there is a higher interest game that is competitive. Then I watch the CFB Final to see highlights. During the late night game and highlight shows I surf several team message boards to see what the temperature is like based on that day’s results. I didn’t do this until my kids became adults, and I didn’t have corporate responsibilities. My favorite time of the year now, and I never want it to end. (Selfishly why I want the Group of 5 to play in the Spring and give us another CFB season to enjoy! Depression is right around the corner, but still a few good times ahead.


  12. I added up all the numbers, and that showed up as an overall drop of 4.6%, or about 900,000 average viewers.

    I’m not sure how streaming games get counted in this system, as that’s becoming a more widely accepted alternative.

    I’m just not sure it’s a huge red flag just yet.


    • Macallanlover

      And how do they account for DVR viewers who watch later? Always wondered and I am sure satellite and cable can track those numbers.


  13. Otto

    Regular season games mean less thanks to the playoff, read my post in the top in the playoff topic The Senator posted at 7:45


  14. Debby Balce

    As more and more people cut the cord the ratings have less meaning. They only survey Nielsen families and they don’t register people who watch on alternative platforms.


  15. Debby Balce

    The numbers come from Nielsen which does not measure alternative delivery platforms. With so many cutting the cord the numbers probably are not an accurate measurement.


  16. Debby Balce

    Sorry for the duplicate comment. It did not show up at first.


  17. Bulldog Joe

    CBS SEC games with the fewest number of viewers in 2017:

    Mississippi State at Arkansas;
    TCU at Arkansas;
    Missouri at Arkansas;
    Florida at South Carolina; and
    Alabama at Vanderbilt.

    Want viewers? Don’t go to Arkansas.