Despite a high-scoring, back-and-forth national championship game, the College Football Playoff had a sophomore slump.
Alabama's 45-40 victory over Clemson Monday night averaged 25.6 million viewers, tumbling 23 percent from last year's inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship, which stands as the top telecast in cable history. In terms of household rating—the metric by which advertising is sold for sports—the game decreased 21 percent to a 14.7. By way of comparison, CBS's coverage of Duke's victory over Wisconsin in the men's college basketball national championship game in April drew 28.3 million viewers.
The ratings decreases for the title game followed poor performances for the semifinal matchups on New Year's Eve. ESPN had to make good $20 million in ad spots. Neither game hit the 20 million viewer mark. Those makegoods ran during Monday's championship game and ESPN's telecast of the Houston Texans-Kansas City Chiefs NFL wild-card game on Saturday.
While it isn't known what kind of ratings guarantees ESPN made for the national championship game, it's likely the 25.6 million figure will fall short. After all, the game aired on the same Monday night it did last year, and ESPN reportedly bumped up its asking price from $1 million to $1.3 million per 30-second spot.
The likely reasons for the decline in viewership are many. The CFP overestimated its impact on viewer behavior by keeping the semifinals on New Year's Eve. Fewer viewers for the semifinal games led to less interest in the championship game. Alabama and Clemson, two southern teams separated by just a five-hour drive, were challenged by geography, and only Alabama boasts a strong national following. Last year's game, Ohio State vs. Oregon, had more of a national appeal.
Last year's game also had the advantage of being "new," so a ratings drop-off may have been inevitable—though it was probably steeper than ESPN would have liked.