Two years in and the playoff’s problems are already showing
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — College football fans are rarely happy for long — not with their coach, their quarterback, or (of course) the officiating. So it probably should not come as a surprise that the College Football Playoff’s honeymoon lasted exactly one season.
Alabama and Clemson did everything possible Monday night to deliver a satisfying finale to the 2015-16 postseason. Their back-and-forth thriller featured huge performances by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, an onside kick for the ages and more.
Despite all that, 23 percent fewer people (25.7 million) tuned in than for last year’s Ohio State-Oregon title game, continuing a decline that began with the semifinals.
Year 1 of the playoff era could not have gone off more delightfully. A year later, the new system is already showing some cracks. Organizers aren’t likely to make any overnight changes; however, it would behoove them to be more proactive than they were with the perpetually divisive BCS.
While the 2015 regular season provided seemingly a decade’s worth of thrilling and wild endings — from Michigan’s botched punt snap to Miami’s insane series of laterals — the bowl season that followed it could best be described as depressing.
The angst began with the “too many bowls” crowd, which got an unprecedented jolt of fodder when three 5-7 teams had to fill spots in the 40 games. Two Mountain West teams got pitted against each other in something called the Arizona Bowl. Never mind that the 5-7 teams all won their bowls. The whole thing felt icky.
“Clearly,” said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, “the system is broken.”
That may be overstating it a bit. More people still watched the Dec. 23 Georgia Southern-Bowling Green GoDaddy Bowl (2.3 million) than a typical weeknight NBA game.
But disappointing TV ratings for the CFP’s first-ever New Year’s Eve semifinals became one of the most talked-about stories of the entire bowl season. It felt like the moment when the still-infant event blew nearly all of its Year 1 goodwill.
Flying in the face of organizers’ stated goal to “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve in this country,” viewers overwhelmingly tuned out for the Clemson-Oklahoma Orange Bowl and Alabama-Michigan State Cotton Bowl, which collectively fell 36 percent from the previous year’s viewership. The trend continued on New Year’s Day, as the lopsided Stanford-Iowa Rose Bowl earned the lowest rating (7.4) in the history of the game.
Altogether the New Year’s Six bowls lost 19 percent of their audience from a year earlier. CFP executive director Bill Hancock’s subsequent PR spin — calling the drop “modest” and urging people to remember that “one year does not make a trend” — sounded a whole lot like the persistently tone-deaf defenses he and the commissioners used to trot out about the oft-criticized BCS.
Obviously, neither commissioners nor bowl officials could control the lopsided nature of games like the Cotton (a 38-0 Alabama victory) and Rose (Stanford drilled Iowa 45-16), but results alone did not fully explain the erosion. Not only did the New Year’s Eve semifinals inconvenience many fans, but they also managed to make the New Year’s Day games feel largely anticlimactic.
The Granddaddy of them All, the Rose Bowl, used to enjoy TV ratings in the high teens or low 20s. This year’s garnered a record-low 7.4. Which is not entirely unexpected when you serve the main course before the appetizers.
“I am concerned about how does a playoff and a bowl system coexist, and how could we make it better if that’s possible,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at his morning-after press conference here Tuesday. “. . . [It’s] this whole dynamic of how do we keep a healthy bowl system — which I think is great for college football, it’s a lot of positive self-gratification for a lot of players who had a good season — and the national interest that we have in a playoff, which sort of overwhelms the importance of all the other bowl games.”
The New Year’s Eve semis aren’t going away anytime soon, though, in large part because of the Rose and Sugar’s partner conferences locked in their Jan. 1 timeslots with ESPN before the larger playoff was finalized. While the Rose has been played in that window for decades, this year’s largely forgettable Ole Miss-Oklahoma State primetime Sugar Bowl emerged from a “tradition” that the SEC and Big 12 created way back in 2012.
And they’re not budging, either.
“We’ve got an important and meaningful relationship with the Sugar Bowl over time that the Big 12 and SEC worked to establish a contract and an agreement that that’s when that game would be played,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said here Sunday. “That is important to us. I think it’s clearly important to our fans. It was important to the Oklahoma State and Big 12 fans who were in New Orleans. We’re going to protect that tradition.”
New Year’s Eve falls on a Saturday next year, which should help ratings for the Fiesta and Peach semifinals, but because New Year’s Day falls on an NFL Sunday, the Cotton, Rose and Sugar won’t be played until Jan. 2, two days after the playoff games. At which point they might as well be the TaxSlayer or Liberty Bowls.
TV ratings are not the only issue arising from the playoff system. While ticket demand for the Rose Bowl in particular (thanks to hordes of Iowa fans) and most of the New Year’s Six bowls was through the roof, tickets for Monday night’s game were going for less than face value by gameday. University of Phoenix Stadium was still almost entirely full, but the logistics required for two Southeastern schools’ fans to travel across the country on short notice had to be daunting.
And then there’s the toll on the teams themselves, with Saban noting Tuesday that his players basically had no winter break. Bowl practices in mid-December began right around when fall semester ended, and spring semester begins Wednesday.
“We go stay in Dallas for a week to play a game, we come home for five days, and we come out here for [four] days to play a game,” he said. “That’s hard on fans. It’s hard on players.
“I think it’s a great venue. I’m not complaining. But it’s just difficult. You don’t have that circumstance in the NFL. You play home and away games when you’re in the playoffs.”
And ultimately, most of us realize that’s where the sport is ultimately headed — an eight-team playoff with early-round games played on campuses. It won’t happen anytime soon, what with 10 years left on the current playoff contract. But the commissioners built this system as a somewhat clunky hybrid of the traditional bowl season and a bracketed tournament. As interest in the non-playoff bowls wane, protecting the bowls’ interests will inevitably become a lower priority.
In the meantime, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the system we have, starting with a regular season that’s only become more compelling. Two late-November games that shaped the eventual playoff field, Michigan State-Ohio State and Notre Dame-Stanford, were decided on last-second field goals. The Spartans and Hawkeyes staged a de facto national quarterfinal in the Big Ten title game that came down to the final 30 seconds.
And for all the initial skepticism about the advent of a selection committee, its methodology already seems to be widely accepted. In 2014, many found it shocking that the committee would have two one-loss teams above undefeated, defending national champion Florida State. A year later, few batted an eye that 10-0 Ohio State sat behind 9-1 Alabama with two weeks left. If anything, many felt the committee was overvaluing the often unimpressive Buckeyes.
By the end, they found themselves with what will likely be a rare controversy-free final four.
In hindsight, you didn’t even need a four-team field this year, as Alabama and Clemson acquitted themselves as the undisputed top two in a championship game classic. Next year, of course, you could get something far messier. That’s just college football. There’s no controlling the chaos.
But there are plenty of behind-the-scenes elements that organizers do control. Their response to the New Year’s Eve debacle did not exactly engender confidence they’ll eventually get it right. All of which gives media and fans something to complain about during the long offseason ahead.
We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.