Final BCS Title Game Is One for the Ages

Epic FSU-Auburn tilt draws 25.6 million viewers

College football’s oft-derided Bowl Championship Series went out on a high note Monday night, as the thrilling Florida State-Auburn showdown proved to be one of the most-watched programs in cable history.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, ESPN’s coverage of the 16th and final BCS title game delivered an average 25.6 million viewers and a 14.4 household rating. When the simulcasts on ESPN2 and ESPNews are factored in, FSU’s 34-31 win drew 26.1 million viewers and a 14.8 rating.

Any way you slice it, the FSU-Auburn telecast now stands as the third-biggest draw on any cable network.

As expected, the ACC-SEC battle put up the biggest local numbers in Southern markets. Birmingham, Ala., posted the biggest household rating, scaring up a 55.8, while Jacksonville, Fla., took second place with a 31.1. Other top DMAs include: Knoxville, Tenn. (26.6); Atlanta (25.8); Orlando, Fla. (24.9); Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. (24.2) and Memphis, Tenn. (24.1).

While the final BCS National Championship Game was an instant classic—after Auburn took a 31-27 lead on a 37-yard touchdown run with 79 seconds left on the clock, the Seminoles countered with a relentless drive that culminated in a 2-yard TD pass in the game’s closing seconds—the ratings didn’t quite stand up to last season’s blowout. Alabama’s 42-14 drubbing of Notre Dame served up 26.4 million viewers.

Cable’s all-time biggest audience arrived courtesy of the Jan. 10, 2011 title tilt, when Auburn edged Oregon 22-19 on a last-second field goal. That night, a record 27.3 million viewers tuned in to ESPN.

All told, ESPN’s presentation of the five BCS Bowl games (Fiesta, Rose, Sugar, Orange and BCS National Championship) averaged 16.5 million viewers and a 9.4 rating, up 9 percent from 15.1 million and 7 percent versus last year’s 8.8.

Next year marks the inauguration of the playoff system, under which four teams will compete in a pair of semifinals for the right to advance to the College Football Championship Game. The first title game guaranteed to be neither ambiguous nor controversial (knock wood) will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

ESPN in November 2012 signed a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal to secure the rights to carry the two playoff games and the championship showdown.

While it was believed that a title sponsorship of the new national championship game could fetch as much as $35 million per season, the governing body that oversees the event has elected not to tap that potential revenue stream. Thus, as was the case with the first 75 Rose Bowl games, the CFCG will not come freighted with a sponsor’s name.