The College Football Pay-off

It is safe to say college football fans have entered 2015 more excited than ever before. Why? Because the college football gods had heard for years their cries and moans, and finally answered. This was the year that a playoff would finally crown the best team in the nation. After suffering through the BCS, and computer calculations of which was the “supposed” best team in the nation, the college football-crazed masses would now have a fair and logical end to their season. 

Instead of calling it the College Football Playoff, perhaps College Football Payoff should be the new name, because that’s exactly what happened for fans, ESPN, sponsors, and teams alike on Jan. 1, 2015. The two inaugural semi-final games are now the most-watched programs in cable TV history, with over 28 million tuning in for both the Oregon versus Florida State game and the stunning Ohio State upset over Alabama. For comparison, only 25 million tuned in for last year’s National Championship game between Florida State and Auburn. And we still have the big game left.

This is a watermark victory for college football. Proving exactly why it is a billion-dollar industry, and why ESPN paid $7.3 billion for the major bowl rights, the playoff rights and the national championship game for the next 12 years. This is also why brands, like Dr Pepper, Northwestern Mutual, Progressive and Taco Bell, all paid big money to be associated with the playoff games – introducing new creative, executing new sponsorships, and attaching a brand name to any and all assets that could put them in front of this momentous audience.

With this football addition and the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in March, college sports are building an empire that is envious to others in the sports world. What’s most interesting is how this empire is built entirely on television ratings, and by simply providing sports fans with their most precious oxygen – live content.

In 1995-96, there were only 18 bowl games. Now, there are 38, plus a new College Football Championship final. To put the success of these bowl games in perspective, only one bowl game last year had fewer than 1.2 million viewers. The 2014 MLB Opening Day game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox only drew 1.1 million viewers. The lower-tier bowls may struggle with attendance, hosting games in stadiums that typically seat from 30,000 to 50,000 and drawing only 14,000 to 20,000 spectators, but fans at home are still tuning in and watching by the millions, no matter what the game.

The new bowl system and playoff games also mean a huge financial boost for teams and conferences. According to The New York Times, each of the five major conferences (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, and Big Ten) will see its base revenue increase to about $50 million, from $28 million under last season’s system.

It will be interesting to watch how the NCAA handles this influx of money and ratings, as they have had to deal with a litany of recent issues. With more money being on the line, it’s certain that competition will increase amongst top schools. This is why college coaches are some of the top paid coaches in the country, and why figures like Jim Harbaugh are jumping back to the college game from the NFL. His University of Michigan contract will eventually earn him more money than he was making at the professional level.

We’re entering just the beginning of the College Football Playoff era, and think of the 2014-15 season as just a test. Expansion of the playoff is the most obvious answer (especially after watching the Michigan State stunner over Baylor or the blowout once again from TCU). The fans’ appetite for the drama of a playoff system is there, and it would be hard to envision a way for the NCAA and Conference Commissioners to resist that. With success, will we be worried about a tipping point? When will the monster hype of a handful of games affect the other 30? When will attendance at the lesser bowls become a production or a financial issue? Does the future of college football look more like NCAA men’s basketball with two separate tournaments? Or is it the new mini-NFL? 

One thing is certain, the fans are tuning in and happier than ever to see that their cries for a playoff have certainly paid off.

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