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ESPN College Football Ad Forecast Still Cloudy for Title Game

Alabama-Clemson matchup’s strong Southern accent is just the latest hurdle to buyer satisfaction 1/11/2016 03:32:00 PM Eastern

Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

Related: ESPN Targeted for Ad Spending Gains in 2016

Media buyers who received ad makegoods from ESPN in Saturday’s NFL wild card playoff game to address ratings shortfalls in the two New Year’s Eve college football championship semi-final games, as B&C was first to report, did very well for themselves. Others, who instead took makegoods in Monday’s college national championship game on ESPN, are hoping for a similar strong ratings result.

The Saturday afternoon NFL wild card game, won by the Kansas City Chiefs 30-0 over the Houston Texans, averaged a 14.7 household rating and 25.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen data. That was a 15% household rating increase over last season’s comparable wild card game on ESPN, with about 3 million more viewers tuning in.

That’s far ahead of the two New Year’s Eve college games that drew household ratings under 10.0 and 15.6 million and 18.6 million viewers, respectively, a combined decline of about 36% from the season earlier, when the games were played on New Year’s Day. As a result, ESPN was left owing about $20 million in makegoods.

Presence in the NFL telecast on Saturday helped some advertisers get whole as far as their college game guarantees go. However, media buyers whose clients bought time in Monday’s national championship telecast on ESPN between Clemson and Alabama are still a bit nervous.

Related: Media Buyers, ESPN Negotiating $20M in Bowl Game Ad Makegoods

This time, there is no controversy about the day and time period in which the championship game will be televised, unlike the College Football Playoff committee’s insistence that the two semi-final games be played on New Year’s Eve, denying ESPN’s request to move them to another date.

However, buyers are wondering whether Monday’s game will approach viewership of last year’s national championship game on ESPN, which set a cable viewership record, drawing an 18.2 household rating and 33.4 million viewers as Ohio State defeated Oregon in somewhat of a blowout, 42-20.

ESPN is not commenting on the ad pricing or ratings guarantees for Monday’s championship game. Buyers say that much as the network did for the two semi-final games, it raised its ad rates compared to last season in order to bring in more ad dollars. And in order to do that, they had to also increase the level of ratings guaranteed.

It’s been reported that ESPN bumped up its asking price from $1 million per 30-second spot for last year’s championship game, to $1.3 million per spot this season, so ratings guarantees are up over last season. But buyers say ESPN did not increase its ratings guarantees 30%, commensurate with the dollar increase it is charging, nor is it guaranteeing more than the 33.4 million viewers who tuned in last season. Still, getting even close to that number might be a hard task.

For the buyers who have gotten makegoods from the college semi-finals in the championship game, they will surely get an audience larger than the semi-final games produced, so they will satisfy those ratings deficiencies. However, buyers who bought into the championship game at $1.3 million a pop are wondering how things will play out.

The biggest concern is that the two teams playing in the championship game are both from the southeast, meaning most of the rest of the country, other than the real die-hard college football fans or alumni from each school, might not really care to watch. The two campuses are only about 325 miles apart. And while Alabama may have a bit of a national following, it’s not likely that masses will tune in to see Clemson play. Although with Clemson being undefeated, some national audience might tune in to see if they can end the season that way.

Neither Alabama nor Clemson is from a major metro market which would also tend to draw a larger audience of casual fans.  And while Alabama running back Derrick Henry is this year’s Heisman Trophy winner and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finished third in the voting, it seems like last year’s winner, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota had received more recognition during the season and that may have helped boost the championship game ratings.

Buyers are also concerned about a non-competitive or blowout game but last year’s 42-20 game which set a viewership record should assure them a bit that one-sided games don’t always result in tune out. It was 21-10 at halftime. And this past Saturday’s NFL wildcard game was won by Kansas City 30-0 and they were leading 13-0 at halftime and the game still averaged 25.2 million viewers – although the game was also televised on ABC in simulcast and the viewership was cumed.

ESPN still has advertisers to give makegoods to following the New Year’s Eve games’ under-delivery so it is hoping that that list won’t be added to following Monday’s championship game.

One buyer says ESPN can’t be blamed for raising its ratings estimates and ad rates for this year’s championship game. “Last year the championship game massively overdelivered and crushed the ratings estimates ESPN guaranteed,” the buyer says. “And ESPN left a significant amount of money on the table. Of course they didn’t want to do that again this year.”

Says another buyer about Monday’s championship game, “Everyone is hoping for a close game. On paper you have two good, competitive teams, but there is no major star power, no major geographic markets involved with the teams so there may not be a huge audience.”

However, he added, “What ESPN and advertisers need is a close game in the first half that will keep the audience around.”

It’s also worth noting that ESPN’s 17 Monday Night Football telecasts in 2015 averaged a household rating of 8.1 and 12.9 million viewers. That would mean Monday’s college national championship would have to draw about 20 million more viewers than regular season NFL games on ESPN.  It happened last season, so it can’t be ruled out.

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