By Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer
The College Football Playoff has abandoned a plan to play most of its semifinals on New Year’s Eves after television ratings tumbled last year, moving the dates of future games to ensure they will be played either on a weekend or a holiday.
The changes will start with the 2018 season. The TV ratings for last year’s semifinal games played on Thursday, Dec. 31, dropped 36 percent from the semifinals played the season before on New Year’s Day.
This season’s semifinals are still set for Saturday, Dec. 31. Next season’s playoff is scheduled to be back on Jan. 1. In 2018, the games initially scheduled to be played on New Year’s Eve, will now be played Saturday, Dec. 29.
The 2019 games will move to Saturday, Dec. 28.
The other seasons affected by the change are 2024, when the semifinals will be moved to Saturday, Dec. 28, and 2025, when the games will be played on Saturday, Dec. 27.
“We had a healthy discussion with a lot of people who love college football and we concluded that making these changes would be the right thing to do for our fans,” College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said in a statement.
In a phone interview with the AP, Hancock said after looking at data provided by ESPN that considered all the factors that contributed to the drop in ratings, such as the lopsided scores and participating teams, it was clear the single greatest factor was when the games were played.
Hancock said several options for altering the schedule were discussed, including giving the College Football Playoff a permanent home on New Year’s Day, but that didn’t get far.
“It was clear from the get go that our group wanted to honor the traditions of the game, including the Rose Bowl, including the Sugar Bowl getting back to New Year’s Day, which they really cherish,” Hancock said. “That one didn’t stay on the table for long.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, whose conference is partners with the Rose Bowl along with the Pac-12, said earlier this week the Rose Bowl would not be giving up its traditional New Year’s Day afternoon time slot. The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference now have a similar partnership with the Sugar Bowl and have locked up the time slot after the Rose Bowl.
Hancock said it was important to keep the semifinals in what he called the holiday period between Christmas and New Year’s Day because it best allows fans to travel to the games.
ESPN’s Burke Magnus, executive vice president, programming and scheduling, said the network, which is paying about $470 million annually for the media rights to College Football Playoff, was pleased with the decision.
“They did engage in a really thoughtful analysis of what could make the CFP more fan friendly and ultimately they got to the right place, which we’re happy about,” Magnus said.
Magnus said ESPN was not directly involved in the decision nor did it exert any pressure on the CFP to change its schedule. He said there was also no pressure from advertisers.
“No, it never went anywhere near that kind of conversation,” Magnus said in a phone interview. “There was never any ultimatum’s issued.”
The first College Football Playoff set ratings records for ESPN on New Year’s Day 2015. The semifinal between Oregon and Florida State was played at the Rose Bowl and Alabama and Ohio State played at Sugar Bowl, with the Rose kicking off at about 5:20 p.m. ET.
The semifinals moved to New Year’s Eve last season for the first of eight initially scheduled times throughout the 12-year contract the CFP has with ESPN.
College football officials said they were going to start a new tradition on New Year’s Eve and that people would incorporate watching big games into their party plans. The initial returns showed that was not happening. Not only did the games have to compete with parties at night, but much of the country was still working when the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma kicked off around 4:30 ET. That was 3:30 local time in Oklahoma.
“We tried to do something special with New Year’s Eve, even when it fell on a weekday,” Hancock said. “But after studying this to see if it worked, we think we can do better. These adjustments will allow more people to experience the games they enjoy so much. For these four years, our previous call is reversed.”