New Year's Eve semifinals are inconvenient and insulting; better get used to it

DALLAS -- The first day of 2015 could not have gone more perfectly for College Football Playoff organizers.

The last day proved an unmitigated disaster.

Despite two years' warning, a relentless onslaught of Jimmy Kimmel ads and some shameless Disney cross-promotion, TV ratings for the first New Year's Eve semifinals were even worse than the most dire industry predictions.

Per Sports Business Journal's Jon Ourand, overnight numbers for the Oklahoma-Clemson Orange Bowl and Alabama-Michigan State Cotton Bowl were 9.7 and 9.9, respectively (about 15.6 million viewers for the Orange Bowl and about 18.6 million for the Cotton, per Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch).

Last year's Rose and Sugar semis got 15.5 and 15.3 (about 28 million viewers apiece, per The Washington Post).

That's more than a third fewer viewers for the sport's biggest games of the year.

That's really bad.

Realistically, both playoff organizers and ESPN knew there'd be a dip, but hoped it'd be more in the 10- to 20-percent range. Mind you, the final scores of the two games were 37-17 and 38-0, respectively. Ratings always suffer when the fourth quarter is meaningless.

But clearly, playoff organizers underestimated just how many people are still working at 4 p.m. ET on a Thursday. And they certainly overshot in assuming their event would be so popular as to persuade casual fans to alter their New Year's Eve night plans.

And guess what? The contracts call for this same schedule seven of the next 10 years.

Including Houston’s upset vs. Florida State, Ohio State’s win over Notre Dame, and Ole Miss’ rout of Oklahoma State, viewership for the New Year’s Six bowls dropped 13 percent.

"That decline, frankly, is not much of a surprise and it's modest," College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told the Associated Press. "It's too soon to know how much was due to the lopsided games or how much what I think we all thought would be an inevitable decline from the excitement of the first year or the semifinals on New Year's Eve. I suspect it's a combination of those three, but I don't have any idea what the weighting is. ESPN is studying the numbers and we'll learn a lot more in the next few months."

The most maddening part about the New Year's Eve games is that playoff folks had a perfect opportunity to avoid them — and turned it down. ESPN tried hard to persuade them for just this one year to move the semifinals to Jan. 2, which happens to fall on a Saturday with no NFL playoff games. Doing so would have punted the dilemma all the way to Year 5 since New Year's Eve falls on a Saturday next year and the Rose and Sugar's turn in the rotation comes back in Year 4.

But the commissioners did not want to delay their grand plan to "change the paradigm of New Year's Eve" in this country. So here we are.

Don't count on them changing course anytime soon, either.

The New Year's Eve semis were never an intentional plan as much as a necessary workaround. In 2012, the Big Ten and Pac-12 locked in a 12-year deal with ESPN to maintain the Rose Bowl's traditional New Year's Day time slot before the larger playoff got finalized. And they got a cool $80 million a year to do it. Separately, the Big 12 and SEC decided to create their own de facto prime-time Rose Bowl, getting their own 12-year, $80 million-per-year ESPN deal before they'd even figured out the bowl in which they'd play it. (It became the Sugar.)

So for the two out of every three years the Rose and Sugar aren't semis, the playoff games got pushed to Dec. 31.

Financially, there's no incentive for the organizers to blow up their scheduling model, either. The same Power 5 commissioners who negotiated those sweet bowl deals for their conferences also run the playoff. And collectively, they'll get their $7.3 billion over 12 years whether anyone watches the games at all.

All that being said, those commissioners need to do some soul-searching this offseason, because it's just plain insulting to college football fans to intentionally inconvenience them. Over the past few weeks, I heard from many who said they'd be stuck at work for the early game or unable to get out of, um, spousal obligations that evening.

Chances are they'll just bank on people adjusting as the years go on. And they may be right. But they may go 11 years without ever achieving the perfect storm of great games and huge audiences they did on Jan. 1, 2015.

And that's a shame.

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