Let’s give it up for the College Football Playoff selection committee. Despite all the outrage from Florida State players, coaches, and fans, the reviled committee dialed up one of the best TV shows in years with Michigan’s thrilling 27-20 overtime victory over Alabama on Monday.
ESPN’s telecast had it all. Two blue-chip college football programs, fighting until the last down. Two legendary coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban. An iconic setting at the Rose Bowl—the “granddaddy of them all,” in the words of the late Keith Jackson.
How good was this for TV? Michigan-Alabama averaged 27.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen’s fast nationals, peaking at 32.8 million. That made it one of the Top 10 most-watched cable TV telecasts of all time (but still behind the record 28.27 million viewers for Ohio State-Alabama in 2015, the most-watched college football semifinal in history). Meanwhile, Washington-Texas late on Monday night averaged 18.4 million viewers. All told, ESPN drew its most-watched CFP Semifinals in six years, with 22.6 million average viewers.
Now, does anybody think the Seminoles, without star quarterback Jordan Travis, would have produced comparable drama against Harbaugh’s loaded Wolverines? Even after their no-show performance at the Orange Bowl, where the undefeated ACC Champions were destroyed 63-3 by Georgia on Saturday? Yes, we can partly blame that beatdown on their heartbreak at being excluded from the CFP in favor of one-loss Alabama and Texas, and the subsequent exodus of opt-out players. But the reality is that FSU was always going to be missing its injured starting quarterback. Travis’s backup (after Tate Rodemaker entered the transfer portal), Brock Glenn, threw for 139 yards with two interceptions.
Meanwhile, the team that the CFP committee picked instead of FSU, Alabama, took No. 1 Michigan to overtime. And as Doug Gottlieb said on his Fox Sports radio show: “You can’t get any closer than overtime.”
Fox Eyes ‘Massive Bid’ For CFP Rights
I’m hearing that Fox Sports is weighing a “massive” bid to snatch all or parts of the College Football Playoff away from ESPN. The strategy would make sense for Fox. The network’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame show has closed the TV ratings gap against ESPN’s iconic College GameDay. And Fox’s gambit to place its top games in the noon Saturday window, rather than in primetime, has proven to be a brilliant programming stroke by the company’s head of strategy and analytics, Mike Mulvihill.
The tell here came when Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch warned Wall Street that it was “highly unlikely” he’d bid on the NBA against ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports. According to sources, Murdoch and Co. are building a war chest for other rights negotiations. (At the same time, another source vowed that Fox would not overpay for the CFP. The network is counting on ESPN’s newly disciplined approach to rights negotiations.)
Fox and other networks will take their shot as the CFP expands to 12 teams in 2024. In ’26, the rights to the entire package will go up for bid, including for the CFP National Championship. Coming up on the outside is NBC Sports, which added Big Ten Conference rights to its existing Notre Dame package. Along with the NBA’s rights, the CFP’s will be among the most eagerly sought-out sports rights in 2024.
MNF Drawing Best Audiences Of ESPN Era
Just a few years ago, insiders warned that ESPN’s iconic Monday Night Football was running on fumes. But a more competitive game schedule and the addition of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck in the broadcast booth have rejuvenated the NFL’s original prime-time package.
ESPN just wrapped up its most-watched season of MNF since taking over the package from the former ABC Sports in 2006. MNF averaged 17.1 million viewers, up 33% from last year. In a span of six weeks, ESPN has televised the three most-watched MNF games since 1997.
Of course, simulcasting so many of those games on sister Disney network ABC has helped goose the numbers. But Amazon Prime Video is riding the wave of strong NFL viewership as well. The streaming giant’s Thursday Night Football coverage averaged 11.86 million viewers this season, up 24%.