With the semifinals back New Year's Day, viewership for the College Football Playoff on ESPN was the highest it has been since the first season of the postseason system in 2015.
The double overtime Rose Bowl thriller between Georgia and Oklahoma drew a 14.8 overnight Nielsen rating and average viewership of 27 million, up 39 percent over last season's early semifinal. Georgia beat Oklahoma 54-48 and ESPN said the television rating reached a high of 17.3 in overtime.
The Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Clemson got a 12.5 rating and average viewership of 21.1 million, up 10 percent from last season's second semifinal.
The last two seasons the semifinals were played on Dec. 31. The CFP drew record viewership for ESPN in its first season when games were played on Jan. 1, 2015.
Overall, ESPN had its best average viewership for the New Year's Six in the four-year history of the College Football Playoff format. The results were aided by the calendar, the changes made to the format in 2016 that moved games away from New Year's Eve and some big-brand teams in the non-semifinal matchups.
ESPN executive vice president for programming and scheduling Burke Magnus said simply having the semifinals back on Jan. 1 had network officials optimistic about the size of the audience.
"We knew that going into this year, the tweaks that had been made over the last couple years and then getting back to the first year of the cycle again, with the semis on Jan. 1, was going to be a very favorable circumstance," Magnus said.
Continuing that ratings success could be difficult for ESPN with an all-Southeastern Conference championship game Jan. 8 matching Alabama and Georgia in Atlanta. The all-SEC championship after the 2011 season between Alabama and LSU was the lowest-rated title game in the Bowl Championship Series' 16-year history.
Magnus said the regional matchup is not necessarily cause for concern, not after having Clemson and Alabama in the championship game the past two years, teams from different conferences but both from the South.
"It would always be to our advantage just from a pure fan interest perspective to have teams representing multiple regions of the country," Magnus said. "That being said, Alabama is the No. 1 draw in the sport now from a television perspective, or maybe you can argue they flip-flop with Ohio State. They're a gigantic brand and huge draw. I like the buzz Georgia is getting come off that great Rose Bowl game."
Having two SEC teams play for the championship in the heart of the South and just 70 miles from Georgia's campus will be a boon for ticket sellers.
StubHub said demand for tickets to the national championship game was up 106 percent over this time last year, when Clemson and Alabama were set to play for the second straight year and the game was in Tampa, Florida. The company said Tuesday that the average ticket price on StubHub for Alabama-Georgia was $2,689, with the lowest available at $1,930 for upper end zone seats in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
This season's New Year's Six got off to a good start for ESPN with Ohio State-Southern California in the Cotton Bowl, played Friday night, Dec. 29. The game drew the best rating (5.9 and 9.468 million viewers) of any non-semifinal game during the four years of the current format. The Fiesta Bowl with Penn State and Washington and the Orange Bowl with Miami and Wisconsin were played Saturday, Dec. 30. No bowl games were played on Dec. 31; college football traditionally has avoided competing against the NFL on Sunday.
"That's about as good, for fans and for us, as you can get," Magnus said. "It's still compressed around the New Year's holiday, but you get everything as clean as you can for giving fans an opportunity to watch."
The FBS conference commissioners who manage the College Football Playoff backed off the original plan to schedule the semifinals on New Year's Eve during most of the 12 years of the media rights deal with ESPN and tinkered with the schedule in 2016. Next season's CFP semifinal doubleheader is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 29. The season after that, the games are slated to be played on Saturday, Dec. 28, and there will be a 17-day gap between the semifinals and the championship game on Monday, Jan. 13, in New Orleans.
The semifinals return to Jan. 1 for the 2020 season. The semifinals can only be played on New Year's Day when they are held in the Rose and Sugar bowls because those games and the conferences affiliated with them have contracts with ESPN locking in those time slots.
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