Updated: Aug 4
In 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided its seminal case dealing with college athletics, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, one thing became very clear: college football on television was a business. And in 2021, business is good.
College football’s television ratings are off to a roaring start in 2021. Through the first six weeks of the season, 12 games have brought in at least five million viewers. Fox’s broadcast of Ohio State visiting Minnesota on Thursday, September 9 is the most-watched opening Thursday game on record. And so far this season, there’s only been one week – week 5 – that did not have at least one game that had more than five million viewers.
And it was more of the same this past weekend (Week 6) -- CBS announced this week, for example, that its October 9th broadcast of Alabama vs. Texas A&M was the highest-rated television program that aired on any network during that day, averaging more than 8.3 million viewers, with more than 12 million viewers tuning in during the dramatic ending. The thriller between Oklahoma and Texas at the Cotton Bowl resulted in an increase of 21% in ratings compared to the teams’ game last year. And, overall, Week 6 in college football featured three of the season’s top nine audiences (thanks also to a matchup of top #5 programs, Iowa and Penn State).
The biggest reason obviously behind the booming numbers is the return to normalcy for college football broadcasts – fans are back in the stands this year at full capacity, networks are no longer doing remote broadcasts like viewers saw during the pandemic-disrupted season of 2020, and teams are back to playing full 12-game regular season schedules with both non-conference and conference games slated. Another reason is that the premiere non-conference games in 2021 have been highly compelling, such as Oregon-Ohio State, Penn State-Auburn in a whiteout under the lights in Happy Valley, Wisconsin-Notre Dame at Soldier Field, and a top-5 clash between two powerhouse programs, Clemson and Georgia. And, undoubtedly, the constant uncertainty of games being either postponed or cancelled due to COVID turned some fans off from the product last year.
This lack of normalcy clearly impacted last year’s ratings. The 2020 regular season, for example, had only 10 games that topped at least five million viewers, with the first 5-million-plus viewer game of the season happening in Week 6. Meanwhile, five games in Week 1 of the 2021 season easily reached that number (with more than 8 million viewers watching Florida State-Notre Dame and nearly 9 million viewers tuning in to see then #3 Clemson face off against then #5 Georgia in Charlotte). The Clemson-Georgia game beat ABC’s most watched primetime regular season game last year by nearly 2.3 million viewers.
But it’s not just the figures from 2020 that 2021 is showing major differences from -- FOX’s overall viewers, for example, are up a whopping 30% from 2019, with the network averaging nearly 4 million viewers for its Saturday broadcasts. And the Georgia-Clemson matchup was the highest-rated week one game since the 2017 college football season. This ratings increase has also been impacted by Nielsen’s decision to integrate viewing that takes places at bars, restaurants, and other public establishments into its ratings measurements (“OOH ratings”). Nielsen introduced OOH ratings in 2020, and they undoubtedly have led to an increase in the overall number of viewers.
These booming ratings bode well for what has so far been a wildly fun and unpredictable college football season. Buckle up and get ready for more great football broadcasts for the next three months.
John Rigby is an Associate Attorney at Venable LLP in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the UCLA School of Law. He’s attended two UCLA games at the Rose Bowl this season – the rest he’s watched comfortably on TV.
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