The Big Ten May Make or Break College Football’s Network Partners

Anthony Crupi
·5 min read

The return of the Big Ten continues to help boost college football’s seasonally-depressed ratings, as the conference’s second week of action served up the second most-watched varsity broadcast of the fall.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, ABC’s Halloween presentation of the primetime Ohio State-Penn State game scared up 6.53 million viewers, of whom 2.13 million were members of the adults 18-49 demo. In beating the No. 18 Nittany Lions 38-25 in front of 1,500 fans at Beaver Stadium, the third-ranked Buckeyes helped ABC deliver a 3.5 household rating.

Saturday night’s game marked the second primetime appearance for the Big Ten, which began its 125th season of college football last week, or 38 days after conference officials decided to reverse course on the August 11 decision to cancel all fall sports. In a game that was also carried by ABC, Michigan’s 49-24 victory over Minnesota served up 5.12 million viewers, a tally that included 1.76 million fans in the dollar demo, and a 2.7 household rating.

The two Big Ten showcases have gone a long way toward improving ABC’s primetime deliveries; through eight broadcasts, Saturday Night Football is averaging 4.05 million viewers and a 1.0 in the demo, which shakes out to around 1.3 million adults 18-49. ABC’s Saturday night window now stands as the eleventh highest-rated program on network TV, the deliveries still lag behind where they were in 2019.

Compared to the analogous year-ago slate, Saturday Night Football is currently down 27% in total viewers, which works out to a loss of 1.5 million fans per broadcast. Hampered by an early run of low-impact ACC games, ABC’s college football showcase has seen its demo deliveries fall 33%. Bear in mind that the prorated broadcast averages are down 25% in the demo since the fall TV season began in September.

Here’s another way to put this chopped-and-screwed season’s deliveries into perspective: At this stage in the game, ABC’s two biggest Saturday broadcasts rank as the season’s second- and fifth most-watched college football games. When merged with last year’s ratings, No. 2 slips to No. 11 and No. 5 to the twentieth spot. Then again, as with pretty much any comparison that can be made between our pandemic year and the before-time, the results are skewed; this time a year ago, ABC already had aired five primetime Big Ten games, including Michigan State-Ohio State (6.68 million viewers) and Michigan-Penn State (6.66 million).

Now that both the Big Ten and SEC are back in the picture, the two conferences have all but chased the ACC and Big 12 from the upper reaches of the ratings chart. Through Halloween night, the Big Ten accounts for three of the top 10 college football broadcasts, while the powerhouse SEC has laid claim to five spots. Through nine weeks of play, the game to beat is the Oct. 17 Georgia-Alabama air war, which averaged 9.61 million viewers and a 5.3 household rating on CBS.

If ABC is glad to see the Big Ten suited up for a truncated season, Fox is over the moon. According to Standard Media Index data, Fox and its cable sibling FS1 last year raked in $124.8 million in Big Ten ad sales, and while the loss of some early-season games will make it all but impossible to match that windfall, the two most valuable offerings remain on the fall schedule.

On Dec. 12, Michigan travels to Ohio State for the 117th edition of the annual hatefest that is known simply as The Game. As Jim Harbaugh looks to get off the schneid (he’s the first head coach in the history of the series to crank out an 0-5 record), Fox looks to make bank; per SMI estimates, last year’s 56-27 rout brought in $18.5 million in ad sales revenue and averaged 12.4 million viewers and a 7.1 rating. Seven days later, Fox will once again play host to the even-more-lucrative Big Ten Championship Game, which in 2019 generated $19.4 million in spend. Last season’s title tilt was the highest-rated in six years, as the Buckeyes’ 34-21 defeat of Wisconsin averaged 13.6 million viewers and a 7.6 rating.

Ad rates for this year’s slate of national Big Ten broadcasts has been strong, although naturally there is a pecking order among the member schools. On Saturday, the going rate for a 30-second unit in Fox’s noon coverage of Michigan State-Michigan was $150,000 a pop, and marketers who paid the freight got their messages out in front of an average crowd of 4.22 million viewers. In upsetting the No. 13 Wolverines, the Spartans helped serve up Fox’s third-largest college football audience of the season.

In the 3:30 p.m. slot over on ESPN, the unranked Northwestern Wildcats outlasted the Iowa Hawkeyes 21-20. The average unit cost for an in-game spot was half that of the Michigan State-Michigan broadcast, although the ratings didn’t quite correlate, as ESPN averaged 1.15 million viewers. It’s not an exact science.

Speaking of science, college football has been able to go forward because the teams in each conference have been steadfast in their observation of coronavirus testing protocols. And yet because the disease is anything but under control, team sports remain inherently risky. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Badgers announced that five additional people inside the football program have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total of active cases to 27. With 15 players and 12 staffers infected, the school has been forced to cancel Saturday’s home game against Purdue—this on the heels of its decision to call off its Oct. 31 trip to Nebraska.

Neither game will be rescheduled, and ABC now has to scramble to fill Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. slot, just as FS1 was forced to make up for the Halloween game. (With little in the way of viable options, the Fox cable net went with Indiana-Rutgers.) Meanwhile, if the No. 10 Badgers are forced to cancel another game, they’ll be eliminated from consideration for the Big Ten Championship.

Which is to say: Nothing is guaranteed, especially not this year.

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