More Viewers, More Problems: ESPN’s Sugar Bowl Dilemma

Was the first version of the College Football Playoff too successful?

It is bizarre to even broach such a topic in the wake of the two most-viewed cable programs in television history. It is even more bizarre when thinking about the perception of the playoff before New Year’s Day.

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In the week preceding the first semifinals, there was a growing angst that it wouldn’t work. Reporters complained about a so-called “lack of buzz.” There were multiple “sky is falling” stories about thousands of empty seats for the Rose Bowl. There were, of course, a grand total of zero empty seats.

It dawned on me at exactly 12:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve day that people had forgotten. It had been two decades since New Year’s Day mattered. As the Peach Bowl kicked off, I felt like I was 12 again – preparing for two full days of the best playing the best.

By the time Ezekiel Elliott sprinted for a game-clinching touchdown in an instantly iconic moment, college football had, to borrow a phrase, re-introduced itself to America. Both the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl surpassed 28 million viewers. There is no telling how big the championship game could become.

However, the amazing results of Year 1 could pose serious issues for ESPN – both semifinals are scheduled to be played on New Year’s Eve for the next two years. That is not going to work.

The first year of the Playoff indicated that many, many people like to watch college football but many of these people do not like watching college football on New Year’s Eve. Yes, there are millions watching – the ratings for the Peach, Fiesta and Orange were nothing to sneeze at. The game didn’t feature one name brand, like a Notre Dame or Alabama, and only one of them was competitive in the fourth quarter. It’s a very small sample size. But it’s worrisome.

Can the semifinal games come close to 28 million on New Year’s Eve? That is what ESPN is banking on. They have been getting 15+ million on New Year’s Day for “meaningless” BCS games for the past few years. They are gambling they can turn New Year’s Eve into another football holiday.

As if it isn’t obvious, here’s a spoiler alert: They cannot.

Common sense would say that a semifinal game, at least one, should always be on New Year’s Day. But in a rush to appease the Big 12 and SEC, ESPN agreed to put their Champions Bowl – the Sugar Bowl – on New Year’s Night after the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl will be played at 2 p.m. PT every New Year’s Day until the end of time, as it has been for 100 years. The Sugar Bowl between the Big 12 and SEC champions has, well, never been played.

ESPN has a problem. They now know the extent of the audience on New Year’s Day and Night for a semifinal game. How can they pass that up?

There is no way in hell – in my opinion – that the current rotation of two semifinal games on New Year’s Eve for two straight years will last past the 2016 season. But what will ESPN do? I’m glad you asked – I have some possibilities.

The Split: One Semifinal on New Year’s Eve, One on New Year’s Day

There are three Access bowls – Peach, Fiesta and Cotton – that do not have conference tie-ins. There are three Host bowls – Orange, Rose, Sugar – that do. In this scenario, the Access bowls are always played on New Year’s Eve with one game in primetime hosting a semifinal. The Host bowls are all on New Year’s Day with the Rose Bowl always in its traditional slot, hosting a semifinal once. The Sugar gets the primetime slot twice, once as a semifinal, and the Orange gets it once – the other game occupies the 1 p.m. slot.

This appeases the Big 12 and SEC, as the Sugar Bowl remains in primetime after the Rose two out of three years. The playoff games are every year split, which means college football fans know they must pay attention both days – clearly many casual fans tuned out on 12/31 this year. It will also boost the non-playoff games – see the huge numbers the Cotton Bowl as a lead-in relative the other bowls.

The Compromise: Sugar and Rose don’t host semifinals together

If ESPN absolutely has to keep the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Night, it can at least split the semifinals so New Year’s Day isn’t a lame duck. In this scenario, there would be one year of both semifinals on New Year’s Eve followed by two years of one on each day. This is better than what we will have but not ideal.

The Ideal: Both Semifinals on New Year’s Day, screw the Sugar Bowl

If we gave the Sugar Bowl some money, would that make it okay?

The semifinals need to be played on New Year’s Day. The Rose Bowl can still be at 5 p.m. ET every year. The primetime game rotates between the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta as a playoff game. When the Peach or Cotton hosts a semifinal, they do so in the 1 p.m. timeslot.

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There are so many positives. For one, the Rose Bowl can draw playoff-like numbers any year, so having it sandwiched in-between essentially gives ESPN three playoff games. Two, it would absolutely obliterate the Winter Classic, as it started to do this year. Third, there are a ton of people watching football at that time – ESPN did 10 million for the Cotton Bowl while the Outback was attracting more than 6 million on ESPN2, for that network’s largest audience ever. You can easily get 28 million people watching at 1 p.m. New Year’s Day.

The only drawbacks to the playoffs on New Year’s Day every year are – oh, who am I kidding? There are no drawbacks, just minor details.

The Citrus and Outback bowls would likely have to move. New Year’s Eve would never host a playoff game; merely bowl games that “only” attract 10 million viewers. Maybe ESPN could move the Citrus and Outback to New Year’s Eve – CBS could move the Sun Bowl back too – and that day can become the football overload in advance of the championship games the next day.

The Future? An Expanded Playoff

When I wrote about my dream of a 16-team playoff, I said that the semifinals should be at the Rose and Sugar Bowl every year. Maybe that is the end goal?

While I doubt a 16-team playoff is realistic, an 8-team seems extremely realistic consider there are 6 bowls in the New Year’s Six and there are 6 games needed in an 8-team tournament to get to a title game. I don’t know if the future is 2017 or 2027, but that appears where we’re headed. Even if I love the current four-team playoff after hating it so, so much in theory.

What Would I Do?

I have longed for New Year’s Day to mean something again. Now that it does, it’s going away for two years? I cannot accept that. I want to experience what I experienced on 1/1/2015 every year until I die. Both games need to be played on New Year’s Day.

Deep down, I believe everyone involved knows this. Why else did they only announce the first three years of bowls? Because they have to find out if the semifinals on New Year’s Eve could work. It won’t.

New Year’s Day works too perfectly for New Year’s Eve to compete.

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