There’s a big gap thus far between college and professional football television viewership.
Both college and the NFL started their seasons off poorly, as the audience for the pros’ opening slate of Sunday games suffered small declines from a year ago and in college most games posted significantly lower.
The thinking then was the drop in ratings for both were the result of the plethora of sports on the tube, especially the NBA and NHL playoffs. In addition, for the amateurs, the fact that the popular SEC had yet to kickoff also was believed to be part of the problem.
But competition from other sports programming may have had little to do with football’s ratings. This past week, even as the NBA and NHL playoffs marched on, the NFL posted a strong comeback. According to Sports Media Watch, NFL viewership hit week-three highs both overall and on Monday night, with the national window (Cowboys-Seahawks in 72% of markets) averaged an 11.8 rating and 22.79 million viewers on Fox, marking the largest Week 3 NFL audience in six years.
In fact, season-to-date, the top 15 shows on television have all been NFL games. This is great news for the league as it continues to hammer out its new media deals with the likes of Fox, Disney DIS , CBS VIAC and NBC. The NFL’s national (evenly shared) media deals are expected to roughly double to $15 billion annually from $7.5 billion—a big reason why team valuations rose 7% over the past year.
But for college, the restart of the SEC games this past weekend was a bust. Mississippi State’s upset of LSU averaged a 2.5 rating and 4.44 million viewers in Saturday’s season premiere of the SEC on CBS, marking the highest rating and viewership of the college football season. The previous highs were a 2.4 and 4.32 million for Notre Dame’s home opener against Duke on NBC. But ratings fell 17% and viewership 10% from last year’s SEC on CBS debut, which took place one week earlier in the season (Alabama-South Carolina: 3.0, 4.95 million). Versus the same week of last season, ratings still fell 17% and viewership 5% (from Auburn-Texas A&M: 3.0, 4.66 million). Overall, Saturday’s game averaged fewer viewers than 12 of last year’s 16 SEC on CBS windows.
Most of the other college ratings were dreadful, For example, ABC averaged a 0.8 (-49%) and 1.45 million (-43%) for West Virginia-Oklahoma State and a 0.6 (-45%) and 998,000 (-35%) for UCF-ECU, the latter a late replacement for its originally-scheduled Notre Dame-Wake Forest game. ESPN pulled a 0.6 (-35%) and 1.08 million (-30%) for Army-Cincinnati and a 0.45 (-49%) and 795,000 for Troy-BYU.
Trying again to rethink this, maybe the divergence in ratings has more to do with the uncertainty surrounding college football. While the NFL, at least for now, has not missed any games and has a clear path towards a normal, albeit expanded, playoffs, college football has started in spurts with no clarity at this point about the difficulty in choosing selecting the teams for its playoffs. On top of all this is the sense that the NFL has the highest betting handle in sports—a big help when it comes to getting eyeballs.