In an almost unheard of turn of events, more Americans watched the college basketball national title game than the college football national championship, as the ratings disaster continued for ESPN.
The New York Times reported the 23 percent drop to 25.7 million viewers and the fact that millions fewer viewed the football national championship than the NCAA tournament final. The Big Lead called it “embarrassing.”
CBS Sports’ basketball title game between Wisconsin and Duke peaked at 33.4 million, and averaged 28.3. The NCAA boasted that the average viewership of the 65 games over three weeks on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV drew 11.3 million—more than three million more than ESPN’s one-and-only Rose Bowl.
The Sporting News reported ESPN may have to repay advertisers $20 million for the “abysmal” New Year’s Eve semifinals that dropped 37 percent. While the semifinals constituted part of six boring Bowl Games ESPN dubbed the “New Year’s Six,” the title game played out as a closely fought 45-40 Alabama win over Clemson.
For comparison the NBA Finals averaged a record 19.9 million viewers, but you would need to add the viewership of all six NBA Finals games to match last year’s Super Bowl on Fox, the highest rated program in history according to Statista at 114.4 million. The idea that a basketball game could outdraw a football game is shocking.
Many scoffed when Breitbart Sports suggested the American Athletic Conference champion should be included in an 8-team playoff to give some of the March Madness magic rather than the ESPN system that virtually assures the five major conferences will produce the only four teams with a shot at the title. Houston backed up the Breitbart Sports claim by winning the American, and then dominating a Florida State team that was tied in a road game at national runner-up Clemson half way through the fourth quarter. Houston finished 8th in both the AP and USA Today polls.
ESPN’s mega contracts fueled conference realignment to consolidate major teams regardless of historic rivalries. But the network needs huge ratings to justify the contracts. In 2015, ESPN abruptly shut down the pop culture site Grantland. Layoffs and subscriber drop offs led Fox Sports to ask “Is ESPN a Giant Bubble About to Burst?”
The college football playoffs gave ESPN the chance to broadcast its first billion-dollar sports event. Prior to last year’s playoff, CBS Sports’ March Madness basketball tournament and the Super Bowl, shared on a rotating basis between CBS, NBC and Fox, aired as the only two billion-dollar sports events in the U.S. on broadcast television.