College Football Comes Up Roses for ESPN

ESPN’s stewardship of college football’s Bowl Championship Series got off to a promising start on New Year’s Day, as the Rose Bowl telecast served up the single largest non-NFL audience in cable history.

The TCU-Wisconsin Rose Bowl matchup delivered 20.6 million viewers Saturday night, according to Nielsen fast nationals, making it the third most-watched cable telecast of all time. The Horned Frogs’ 21-19 win over the Badgers trails only two Monday Night Football games––the Oct. 5, 2009, Packers-Vikings grudge match (21.8 million) and the Patriots-Saints battle on Nov. 30 of that same year (21.4 million).

Excluding NFL games, the Rose Bowl easily outshined all other cable competition, topping the previous record set by High School Musical 2 on Disney Channel (17.2 million on Aug. 17, 2007).

While the granddaddy of them all was obviously a huge draw for ESPN, Saturday’s telecast still numbers among the least-viewed Rose Bowls over the last quarter century.

TCU-Wisconsin deliveries were down 14 percent from last year’s Ohio State-Oregon brawl, which drew 24 million fans on ABC.

Immediately following the Rose Bowl, ESPN’s first stab at carrying the Fiesta Bowl earned the second-lowest rating ever for a BCS bowl game. The prime-time UConn-Oklahoma game drew 10.8 million viewers, down 22 percent from last year’s Boise State-TCU broadcast on Fox (13.8 million).

ESPN won the rights to the BCS through 2014 when it eclipsed Fox Sports with a $500 million bid. Only three of the 35 bowl games were slated to be played on broadcast networks this year: On Dec. 31, CBS aired the Sun Bowl (Miami-Notre Dame, 3.3 overnight rating), while ABC’s coverage of the Outback Bowl (Florida-Penn State) earned a 7.6 on New Year’s Day.

Fox is scheduled to air the Cotton Bowl (Texas A&M-LSU) on Friday, Jan. 7.