For many college sports fans (and I am one), the waning days of August are the most anticipated time of the year as the college football regular season gets underway. It’s the start of 100+ days of exciting collegiate football – all of which is just a prelude to the college bowl games that ultimately lead to the coveted national championship title.
But what a prelude the regular college football season has become… literally dozens of games telecast each week on ESPN and ESPN2 (along with BTN, SECN, FS1 and ESPNU, et. al.) Over the past several seasons, fans of college football have been treated to 140+ games on just ESPN and ESPN2 alone, both of which turned in solid ratings and shares throughout the fall season:
As was the case with NFL Football, college football viewing was lower during the 2016 season — down over 20% in Live U.S. household ratings and shares. Have fans simply grown tired of the sport? In our opinion, not likely, and there were several factors at work that may have depressed Live viewing. Putting aside increased DVR activity, the fact of the matter is that TV viewing in general has been slowly eroding as viewers migrate to digital video (including Over-the-Top viewing).
But more to the point… college football aired smack in the middle of the highly contested 2016 Presidential campaign (and aftermath), which drew record viewing levels to the three major cable news networks: Fox News Channel; CNN and MSNBC. In the chart below, you can see that – on average – the news channels increased their rating by 19% (and share by 33%.) Some of that growth inevitably came at the expense of football games (both collegiate and professional) that aired during the 2016 election season:
Hometown Cooking & Upscale Viewing
Regardless of the election’s impact on college football viewership… the real ratings story behind college football is at the local market level (when hometown market teams are playing.) Below are just a few examples of how high local ratings can go. Take, for example, the late October (2016) ESPN game featuring the Wisconsin Badgers hosting the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nationwide the primetime game pulled down a strong 2.2 Live U.S. household rating, but in the Badgers’ hometown DMA of Madison, Wisconsin — the rating was over 7-times the national level (i.e., 16.9.) And in the Cornhuskers’ hometown DMA of Lincoln, the rating was over 13-times the national level (29.1):
Along with super-high local market ratings, college football on ESPN also delivers a highly engaged audience that is both upscale and educated. We took a look at U.S. household ratings by income classification and (as can be seen below) the ratings rise to a peak of 1.90 for homes with income $175,000 – $199,999. And with higher incomes, we also find viewers that are more educated as well. For example, ESPN’s highest education rating (1.80) is within homes that have one member who has at least attended graduate school (120 Index):
Local Cable Advertising Demand
Over the past two seasons (2015 & 2016), advertising demand for college football has been nothing short of spectacular with over 1,200 local cable clients ordering 55,000+ 30-second spots across 72 Viamedia markets (practically our entire national footprint.) That comes to an annual average of 23 commercial spots per client. And in terms of local advertising category shares, one-half of all investments in college football is made by automotive industry (including manufacturers, regional dealer groups and individual dealerships) – a share level that is double what we normally see for this category company-wide. The second largest category is Political with a 9% share, which is less than half of what this category accrued company-wide:
College Football Fever
While college football is a fall sport, the start of the 2017 NCAA Football season is actually right around the corner (August 26th), which is fine by me! And by the time summer officially ends on September 22nd, the college football season will already be almost a month old! And from what we’ve seen in local market ratings, as well as our own internal sales records, college football will be heating up just as the late summer temperatures begin to fall. And raising the temperature even further –millions of fans gripped in college football fever that knows no bounds.
Written by Jonathan Sims
VP of Media Research, Viamedia