In what amounts to an entirely predictable turn of events, viewers of the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night didn’t hesitate to bail out on Georgia’s 65-7 demolition of TCU. The Bulldogs’ rout of the Horned Frogs averaged just 17.2 million viewers across the ESPN family of networks, making this the least-watched title tilt in the CFP/BCS era.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, deliveries for Georgia’s one-sided victory were down 17% compared to last season’s championship game (20.7 million), in which the Dawgs earned their first national title in 41 years with a 33-18 win over SEC rival Alabama. The audience for Monday’s blowout peaked in the 8:30 p.m.-8:45 p.m. ET quarter-hour, as some 23.4 million viewers were on hand to watch Stetson Bennett leg out his second rushing touchdown of the night to put Georgia up 24-7. By the time Adonai Mitchell hauled in a one-handed, 22-yard TD toss to extend the first-half lead to 38-7, TCU’s odds of pulling off a win had crumpled to just 0.4%, and the exodus had begun in earnest.
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While approximately 16.2 million fans were still tuned in at the start of the second half, those diehards increasingly began looking for better ways to spend their evening as Georgia kept piling on the points. By 10:15 p.m., around the time Georgia head coach Kirby Smart took Bennett out of the game, the ESPN audience had dwindled to 13.3 million viewers; as the game entered its final minutes, the deliveries sank below the 10.3 million mark.
If Monday’s game served as a massive letdown after the two memorably bonkers New Years’ semifinals—Georgia punched its ticket to SoFi Stadium with a 42-41 thriller over Ohio State, while TCU held off a surging Michigan in a 51-45 nail-biter—the anticlimax shouldn’t have caught college football fans off guard. Only three of the nine CFP championship games have been decided by margins of a touchdown or less—and the last time that happened was five years ago, when Alabama topped Georgia 26-23 in overtime.
That said, Georgia’s handling of TCU was historically brutal. The Dawgs’ 58-point margin of victory marks the most lopsided differential in more than a century of bowl games, and Bennett & Co. managed to cover the 63-point over/under all on their lonesome. Prior to this definitive display of dominance, the worst thrashing in the 21st century came courtesy of USC, which undid Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl by a score of 55-19. (ABC’s broadcast of USC’s since-vacated title turn averaged 21.4 million viewers, a pittance compared to the record 35.6 million who tuned in the following year for the epic Texas-USC Rose Bowl shootout.)
According to media buyers, the average unit cost for a 30-second spot in this year’s CFP championship game hovered around $965,000 a pop. In keeping with the time-honored practice of issuing audience deficiency units (ADUs), ESPN will make up for Monday night’s under-deliveries by providing advertisers with airtime in upcoming events. The relationships the Disney sales team has forged over the past nine years with its CFP advertisers—a roster that includes blue-chippers such as Allstate, Dr Pepper and AT&T—will go a long way toward minimizing any reports of makegoods-related histrionics. (Like the old, deservedly maligned NFL catch rule, perhaps no aspect of media is more widely misinterpreted than the humble ADU. To resort to such a universally accepted insurance policy is neither an admission of defeat nor a declaration of war. Blowouts happen.)
While even the most degenerate gamblers had likely switched over to Antiques Roadshow at the half, ESPN did its level best to try and keep viewers engaged. Aside from the primary telecast anchored by Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, fans of Pat McAfee’s signature brand of analysis were given the option of tuning into the former NFL punter’s envelop-nudging sideline coverage on ESPN2. As much as Cotton Mather types presumably took to their fainting couches after McAfee spent much of the night howling innuendos and double entendres, the simulcast didn’t draw enough viewers to precipitate civic unrest. McAfee’s Field Pass telecast averaged 483,000 viewers, and while that tripled ESPN2’s year-ago delivery (158,000), the alternate feed accounted for just 2.8% of Bristol’s overall impressions.
By way of comparison, the average ManningCast contribution this season worked out to 1.34 million of Monday Night Football’s 13.6 million viewers, as Peyton and Eli were responsible for serving up 9.8% of ESPN’s total primetime NFL audience.
The college football season ended on a muted ratings note, but the overall deliveries for the three CFP games averaged out to 20.6 million viewers, making for a 9% increase versus the year-ago 18.9 million. The Peach Bowl (Ohio State-Georgia) closed out 2022 as the year’s 37th most-watched broadcast, averaging 22.4 million viewers, while the Fiesta Bowl (Michigan-TCU) claimed the No. 41 slot with 21.7 million.
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