As throngs of people pack together like sardines in Times Square and various restaurants and bars across the eastern U.S., two powerhouse college football programs will be fighting for a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Thursday's Cotton Bowl between Alabama and Michigan State will be the second of two College Football Playoff semifinal games played on the most unusual of sports TV nights: New Year's Eve. "It definitely presents a unique challenge," said Burke Magnus, ESPN's evp of programming and scheduling. "We're curious to see how it plays out."
Last year's inaugural College Football Playoff was a ratings boon for ESPN, as both semifinal games on New Year's Day averaged north of 28 million viewers. But thanks to contracts and the format of the College Football Playoff, which has the two semifinal games rotate among six different bowl games each year, the next two years will see the College Football Playoff try and steal away viewers who would otherwise go out to ring in the new year or watch New Year's Eve celebrations on TV.
"We know the audience will be huge, but at the same time, I think there will be a level of competition that is going to be very different from last year," Magnus said. Last year's coverage of New Year's Eve celebrations on broadcast networks ABC, NBC and Fox, as well as cable channels Fox News and CNN, combined for more than 38 million viewers. ABC's annual Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve special, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, drew 22.7 million viewers by itself.
And for once, ESPN has a plan to measure those viewers who choose to go out to local sports bars. Magnus said it's working with Nielsen to measure out-of-home viewers, something Nielsen is planning to do more of in 2016, with Thursday's games being the first major test of the new measurement. (ESPN won't have those figures until a few weeks into January.)
Magnus also expects a record night for digital usage. "I think WatchESPN is going to set new records for people streaming on phones and tablets," he predicted. "People are going to find a way to watch in huge numbers."
Earlier this year, ESPN lobbied the College Football Playoff to move the semifinal games to Saturday, Jan. 2, but Magnus said there just wasn't enough time to move the games. "We were too close into the window of time for things to change with buildings, venues, all that stuff," he said.
Holding the semifinals on New Year's Eve is something ESPN is simply going to have to get used to. Between now and the end of the sports network's 12-year contract to air the College Football Playoff, the semis are scheduled for Dec. 31 seven more times. "We knew what we signed up for," said Magnus. He also said ESPN spent the bulk of the season letting viewers know that this year's semis were going to be held on Dec. 31. "We put most of our muscle behind that," Magnus said. ESPN's promo spots, for example, were centered around the New Year's Eve theme, like in this star-studded commercial:
The other College Football Playoff semifinal, the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma, will kick off at 4 p.m. ET, so aside from people scrambling to get home from work, that game shouldn't see much viewer erosion. The key, according to Magnus however, was to ensure as best as they could that both games would be over before midnight.
And if Alabama and Michigan State are locked in an epic, multiple-overtime battle that stretches past midnight on the East Coast? The "surreal" experience of having one game span two separate calendar years aside, Magnus said ESPN would come up with something—perhaps with some help from corporate sibling ABC, which will be set up in Times Square—though he noted that the game itself will be played in the Central time zone, so it will finish well ahead of midnight there no matter how long it goes.
"If we got to that point, we'd get creative," Magnus said. "I'm sure we'd figure out a way to acknowledge that."