The new playoff era is drawing lots of college football fans to bowl game broadcasts, but it isn't necessarily bringing more fans to stadium seats.
ESPN announced that the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual and Allstate Sugar Bowl semifinals in the College Football Playoff drew the largest two audiences in cable television history, with each game attracting over 28 million viewers. The semifinals drew more viewers than any of the four BCS championship games broadcast by ESPN, which will air Monday's title game between Ohio State and Oregon.
"That was a pleasant surprise," said Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior vice president of programming and acquisitions. "We're cautiously optimistic about Monday, but obviously the new format has resonated with fans."
ESPN spokeswoman Keri Potts said ESPN's bowl telecasts through New Year's Day drew an average rating of 3.4, whereas its average rating through all its bowl telecasts other than the championship last season was 3.2. Ratings represent the percentage of homes with televisions tuned to a program.
"It's not just a bowl problem. It's a college football problem that we've got to deal with."Football Bowl Association
executive director Wright Waters
on college football attendance
While ratings are slightly up across the board for bowl games, attendance has dipped.
The 38 bowl games this season have drawn an average announced attendance of 43,285, down 9.2 percent from the average of 47,659 for the 34 bowls last season that led up to the BCS National Championship.
Those figures are skewed by the fact that all four new bowls that had their inaugural games this season drew fewer than 30,000 fans. But even if you throw those four games out of the mix, the average attendance for the remaining 34 bowls is 45,904, down 3.7 percent from last season.
Wright Waters, the executive director for the Football Bowl Association, notes that the attendance drops reflect regular-season trends. A CBSSports.com study showed that the average regular-season attendance for home games this year was 43,483, down 4 percent from last season and the lowest figure since 2000.
"It's not just a bowl problem," Waters said. "It's a college football problem that we've got to deal with."
The first season of the playoff era created plenty of uncertainty for all the bowl games. The old BCS format was replaced by the New Year's Six, which featured the Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls on New Year's Eve with the two semifinals and the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year's Day.
That new format led to plenty of change. For instance, the Peach Bowl was formerly known as the Chick-fil-A Bowl and traditionally pitted an SEC school against an ACC program in a prime-time game. This year, the playoff committee arranged a matchup that had a 12:30 p.m. ET kickoff.
TCU trounced Ole Miss 42-3 in front of an announced attendance of 65,706, ending the bowl's string of 17 consecutive sellouts.
"Obviously it was a 12:30 game where in the past we were in prime time," Peach Bowl CEO and president Gary Stokan said. "We're going to study everything. I don't know if that had anything to do with it. We're studying everything because everything has changed for us. ... But how do you complain with [65,706]?"
Waters suggested that some bowls should try attracting more local fans who aren't affiliated with the two schools playing in the game each year. He cited the Sugar, Peach and Rose as three bowl games with exceptional community support.
"We've probably gotten comfortable with crowds coming from schools," Waters said. "Just as schools are having trouble with their attendance, we're going to have to get more active locally."
Waters said bowl games that have attendance increases generally have compelling matchups featuring regional opponents that are hungry for a bowl appearance.
The AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl had all those elements, as former Southwest Conference rivals Arkansas and Texas made the short trip to Houston for the Razorbacks' first bowl appearance since the 2011 season. Arkansas' 31-7 victory drew a sellout crowd of 71,115, more than double the announced attendance of 32,327 for the Texas Bowl's Syracuse-Minnesota pairing last season.
But there apparently weren't enough of those types of matchups this bowl season.
"You don't really see too many sellouts this year, and I don't think that's anything other than it's just one of those years," Cotton Bowl president and CEO Rick Baker said.