Thanks to new tweaks and an exciting 2019 college football season, both ESPN and FOX Sports saw significant viewership upticks in the coverage of the sport.
ESPN’s College GameDay wrapped up 2019 with its most-watched season since 2015 and its second-best since the show expanded to three hours in 2013. It was also only 5,000 viewers shy of its 2015 viewership average of 1,961,000, the best on record since 2013.
College GameDay averaged 1,956,000 viewers per show on both ESPN and ESPNU, up 3% year-over-year across both channels and up 6% from 2017 when it was only aired on ESPN.
The show also set a record by averaging more than 2.1 million viewers for four consecutive shows, its first time accomplishing this under the new three-hour window.
The network saw signs of what was to come during the 2019 season during week zero, where a handful of teams play ahead of the majority of the nation’s teams begin their seasons.
During that week, ESPN aired College GameDay live from Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, where Samford faced Youngstown State.
“We hadn’t done a Week 0 show in a while, but there we were at Disney World – we had a huge crowd there, and we weren’t expecting that,” ESPN Coordinating Producer Drew Gallagher said.
Week 0 set the stage for some of College GameDay’s most memorable pit stops, said Gallagher. In Week 2, the crew of roughly 70 people – headlined by analysts Lee Corso, Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, and Desmond Howard – traveled to Austin for Texas-LSU. “It was like 90 degrees that day,” Gallagher recalled. “A brutal, hot early September day in Austin – and we had one of our strongest, most vocal-engaged, biggest crowds of the year.”
Another memorable visit came on October 26 when FCS’s #1 North Dakota State took on FCS’s #3 South Dakota State in Brookings, South Dakota. It was the first time that College GameDay had visited the Dakotas since it toured Fargo in 2014. While Brookings boasts a population of roughly 24,509, Gallagher couldn’t believe the fans who came out to see College GameDay that week.
“Brookings, South Dakota: not a spot you would think [for college football],” Gallagher said. “I remember looking out there – and there were 15,000 people [for College GameDay]. It was great.”
Ultimately, the story of College GameDay’s successful 2019 season traces back to its storytelling, said Gallagher. One week featured former Oregon wideout Keanon Lowe who prevented a school shooting. Another focused on Minnesota holder Casey O’ Brien, who returned to college football after a bout with cancer.
According to Nielsen, research showed that College GameDay’s audience grew by an average of 4% during these features throughout the season. All of these features saw at least a 6% audience bump, with the one centering on Lowe topping them all with an 11% audience rise.
“On all our shows, whether it’s been our discussions on the desk or features, the content has been exceptional this year,” Gallagher said. “We’ve noticed a lot of our features this year did an excellent job holding and building viewers, and we just tried to make sure that we’re serving the college fan as we build-up to the new games as well.”
Fox Sports saw a large increase in interest for its college football pregame show as well.
The network’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame show averaged 1,205,000 viewers per episode, a 22% jump year-over-year. It also saw a 233% increase in viewership from Week 1 to Week 14.
Its coverage of the Week 14 game between Michigan and Ohio State was a special edition from Ann Arbor, drawing an all-time best 2,799,000 viewers from 11 a.m. until kickoff. It led to the second-most-watched college game on any network during the regular season.
While Fox Sports has long been broadcasting college football games, it had difficulty carving out its niche, said Executive Vice President of Research, League Operations and Strategy Mike Mulvihill.
CBS plays the SEC $55 million annually for the well-known SEC on CBS, writes AL.com. NBC has been airing Notre Dame football games dating back to 1991. ESPN and ABC leverage its ownership by one of the biggest media properties on the planet to elevate its college football broadcasts.
“The Disney identity is just that they have an incredible amount of tonnage,” Mulvihill said. “They’ve been the market leader for a long time, and we had quality partnerships, but we didn’t have an identity the way that they did.”
During the 2018-2019 off-season, Fox Sports targeted the early part of Saturday as its time to engage with viewers, said Mulvihill, who said his team approached Saturday mornings with a two-pronged approach.
The first step was to launch the Big Noon Kickoff and get into the pregame in a more ambitious way than the network had done previously.
Big Noon Kickoff was followed by Fox Sports’ best game of the day each Saturday at noon Eastern time, said Mulvihill. The network marketed the spectacle as Big Noon Saturday. It helped the Saturday matchups average 5,103,000 viewers each week, and Fox Sports air the most-watched college football games at noon ET nine out of 14 weeks.
“We got away from some of the more crowded windows later in the day,” Mulvihill said. “I think we had a lot of ratings success in doing that. While we still have the same conference relationships that we’ve always had, I think we’ve been able to rethink our positioning of those assets in a way that now finally gives us an identity of our own.”
With Fox Sports’ pushing that message on Saturday mornings, it provides a level of consistency that the network had struggled to achieve, said Mulvihill. Now given Fox’s ownership of the first part of the day, it naturally flows into CBS on SEC in the afternoon, and ABC capping off the day with primetime college football.
“It makes for a more logical progression through Saturdays, and it’s easy for fans to understand,” Mulvihill said. “Our tagline was, ‘Start Saturday Strong,’ and I think if we can drill that idea into fans and get them accustomed to the idea that when they get up on Saturday morning, we should be their first stop because they’re always going to get a high-quality game in that noon Eastern window, that becomes a positive association for us.”
Instead of competing with ESPN for primetime college football coverage, Fox Sports did the right thing in finding another way to increase exposure, said former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant Patrick Crakes.
From there, Fox Sports did the right thing in pivoting its strengths towards earlier timeframes, said Crakes. While it never received the exposure that primetime games bring, Fox Sports was able to be competitive from noon to 3:30 p.m. ET with Big Noon Kickoff, followed by its premier game that day.
“It’s about fine-tuning portfolios, getting better at scheduling, seeing what you’re good at,” Crakes said. “Fox did a great job of figuring out how to play to the strengths and taking inventory, and you have to give [both ESPN and FOX] and their leadership teams a lot of credit.”
While both ESPN and Fox Sports were able to blossom in 2019, college football attendance is still trending downward – and without a clear solution. Heading into the 2020s, reaching Generation Zers will be crucial to sports networks, said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis.
Already, ESPN has begun to make inroads with how it distributes College GameDay digitally. In 2019, the show expanded its online presence, introducing a new onsite Countdown to GameDay show each week from 8:30 to 9 a.m. with a heightened focus on numerous social media platforms.
In its inaugural season, Countdown to GameDay reached 22 million viewers, and each show averaged 1.4 million fans across the ESPN App, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
“The buzz term in all aspects of the sports industry these days is boosting fan engagement – in particular, fan engagement among the younger, Millennial, Gen-Z fans,” Rishe said. “How do you do that? Well, one way is you try to make sure that your show, programming, and content is intertwined with social media.”
While investing in quality marketing and production costs is essential for any sports broadcaster, Mulvihill believes that no amount of money can sway viewers more than the on-field college football product. Based primarily out of its Los Angeles offices, Big Noon Kickoff did have remote broadcasts at venues like Michigan Stadium and the Cotton Bowl featuring iconic brands like Texas and Ohio State.
Of Big Noon Kickoff’s six remote broadcasts in 2019, USC’s 30-23 victory over #10 Utah on September 20 was the only contest decided by single-digits. By Mulvihill’s estimation, that was only one of four Big Noon Kickoff games that were one-possession scores. While he would love to see more competitive affairs, it’s, unfortunately, something that he can’t make happen week in and week out.
“In the end, there’s no substitution for great games,” Mulvihill said. “We can do all the marketing and promotion and positioning that we want, but ultimately the product on the field has to deliver. One of the realities of this business is: your fortunes are, to a large degree, out of your control.”
“You can’t control who wins and loses or what the final scores are. You try to put yourself in the greatest position possible to be lucky,” he said.