Media buyers and their marketing clients are not happy and neither is ESPN – although the network’s execs won’t say so publicly – that the two College Football Playoff Semifinal games are being televised on New Year’s Eve this year instead of on New Year’s Day.
Meanwhile, ESPN sibling ABC can’t be happy either because the second semifinal game – between Alabama and Michigan State – will be televised beginning at 8 p.m. in direct competition with its annual live Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve With Ryan Seacrest show, which will air throughout the game and could see lots of college football fans tuning into the game instead.
Making matters worse, ESPN has been bombarding viewers with TV commercials starring ABC’s late night show host Jimmy Kimmel telling viewers to watch the New Year’s Eve bowl games instead of programming on his own network.
Why so much angst? There’s a lot of ad dollars in play for marketers and for both ESPN and ABC. Last year’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve show in primetime was the most-watched broadcast show from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. It averaged 8.2 million viewers from 8-10 p.m. with a 2.3 18-49 demo rating, which bumped up to 12.9 million and a 3.9 demo rating from 10-11. Between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. it averaged 22.7 million viewers and a 9.2 18-49 demo rating, more than the other broadcast networks combined.
The playoff football game might be over by 11:30 p.m. Thursday, but it might not be since big games like this one usually run more than three hours. And, of course, there is always the possibility of overtime.
There’s also the possibility that many casual fans who would watch the college playoff game on New Year’s Day when there are less conflicts with live entertainment programming and the New Year’s Eve countdown, might not watch football Thursday.
Some might say that ESPN and ABC are both owned by Disney so what’s the problem? Well they still do compete with one another to sell advertising and garner ratings for their programming, and each one would not be happy having to dole out makegood ads for not meeting their ratings guarantees to advertisers.
For ESPN, the potential ratings shortfalls exist not only for the primetime game beginning at 8 p.m., but also for the first semifinal game between Clemson and Oklahoma that begins at 4 p.m. That’s because the start is based on the Eastern time zone, however kickoff is 1 p.m. on the West Coast, 2 p.m. in Mountain time and 3 p.m. in Central time. And not everyone is off from work on New Year’s Eve and able to watch an afternoon start. But they would be off on New Year’s Day.
What makes the situation so galling to media buyers, marketers and even the networks involved, is the college playoff committee’s seeming indifferent attitude to the potential revenue and ratings problems that could arise. The NCAA already has its money to the tune of $600 million a year that ESPN has agreed to pay under its 12-year TV rights agreement that runs through 2025.
ESPN was concerned enough earlier this year to ask the playoff committee that if it didn’t want to move the two games back to New Year’s Day, would they move them to Saturday, Jan. 2, when, again, everyone would be home with less live programming conflicts.
The Playoff Committee thumbed its nose at its $600 million cash cow and said absolutely not. And the reasoning given was pretty vague. “We reviewed [the ESPN request] and rejected it,” said the Pac-12 commissioner and CFP management committee member, adding, “We like the concept that we’ve developed for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Going forward, we think that’s the right model for college football.”
Bill Hancock, executive director of the CFP, said, “We’re not going to change. It’s a done deal.” Later he added, “I really feel like we’re going to change the culture of New Year’s Eve in the country. People are going to have television sets at their New Year’s Eve parties.”
Question is, how many will be watching the second game vs. ABC’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve show?
Media agency execs did not want to talk for attribution, but one called the NCAA decision to turn down ESPN’s request to televise the games on Saturday instead of New Year’s Eve “very unusual,” adding that not only could the football ratings be negatively impacted “but advertisers in the pre-midnight special on ABC will definitely see a loss of audience.”
So if the telecasts on ABC and ESPN cause audience guarantees to not be met, how will each network compensate advertisers? One buyer says ESPN has a handful of units it held back for its one NFL Wild Card playoff game in January and could use those units if it needs to give out makegoods for the New Year’s Eve playoff game shortfalls. Last year ESPN’s one wild card playoff telecast drew 21.7 million viewers, so a unit in that game would be good compensation for marketers.
ESPN is also planning to simulcast that NFL wild card playoff game on ABC, so marketers who buy time in the ESPN game would get additional audience on ABC to help make up for potential New Year’s Rockin' Eve audience shortfalls.
ESPN and ABC sales execs were not available for comment. But sources familiar with the ESPN ad sales deals said the network was getting higher cost-per-thousand pricing than it did for last season’s playoff semifinal telecasts, again shedding light on the power of live, major sports events.
However, one buyer says another reason for the sellouts can be attributed to multi-year deals for the CFP games. He estimates that between 40% and 50% of the advertising in the two semi-final games are from multi-year deals. So they are committed to advertising in the games this year, whenever they are televised.
He also acknowledged that despite some marketer reservations, they did buy into the game hoping for the best. He added that while it won’t do advertisers any good right now if the games under-deliver, one consolation would be that the telecasts over-delivered last season.
Sports columnists around the country have not held back in their criticism of the NCAA for its handling of the situation and its insistence that the two games be played on New Year’s Eve instead of moving them to another night.
Salt Lake Tribune columnist Scott Pierce, in a recent column writes that ESPN should not be blamed for college football’s stupidity. He says, “It’s just plain stupid that the two games will played at inconvenient times when tens of millions of Americans are either at work, or celebrating the holiday somewhere other than at home in front of the TV.”
Last year’s two semifinal playoff games drew 28.2 million and 28.3 million viewers and he wonders why the NCAA would “mess with success.”
Another columnist, Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal, the hometown paper of Michigan State which plays in the primetime playoff game, called the CFP’s decision to televise the game in competition with Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve “kicking dirt on Dick Clark’s grave, by offering the play clock as an alternative countdown to the ball dropping on Times Square.”
Couch says while the viewing audience will be big in Lansing, “the notion that college football is such a powerful drug in American culture that we’ll alter traditions and cancel plans because we can’t help ourselves” is “arrogance” on the part of the CFP.
Dan Wetzel, writing for Yahoo Sports, points out that instead of moving the playoff games to Saturday night, the CFP has instead scheduled the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, featuring West Virginia vs. Arizona State on ESPN.
As for why Kimmel would do a commercial aimed at drawing audience away from his network, one media buyer is betting that Kimmel’s late night show gets a bunch of plugs during the college football telecasts tonight.
“You can bet that ESPN will promote Kimmel to its younger college football audience during the games,” the buyer says.