I wrote an article about a week ago about how the College Football Playoff committee set the game back 10 years by putting Alabama in the top four. Now, there is, even more proof to support my argument. College Football Ratings are down. As a fan and analyst, the answer why is crystal clear: Schedules. There are less and less competitive non-conference games every year. NFL ratings are already suffering from a competition problem (in addition to other important issues). The NCAA and conference leaders need to fix this problem before college football heads down that same path. Here’s where the networks finished for average viewership for this year’s CFB regular season:
CBS: 4.951 million viewers, down 10% from 5.489 million in 2016.
ABC: 4.203 million, down 18% from 5.097 million.
Fox: 3.625 million, up 23% from 2.951 million.
NBC: 2.742, down 3% from 2.814 million.
ESPN: 2.155 million, down 6% from 2.300 million.
FS1: 819,000, up 4% from 743,000.
(Source: Per Austin Karp Sports Illustrated)
Every network saw a decline in viewership except Fox and FS1. Fox bought the rights to the Big 10 network and swapped out viewers from ESPN’s family of networks. The bottom line is that fans are more frequently tuning out of not showing up to see their team get 2-3 free wins per season. They want to see good opponents showing up to the stadium so they get their monies worth. My wife and I have UCLA season tickets, yet every year we debate renewing them depending what the home schedule is. I know there are many people like me. These programs ask you to spend your hard earned money on sweatshirts, swag, and other merchandise, but most won’t schedule more than one good non-conference game. Nobody wants to see “insert favorite team” play Mercer, Citadel, Northern Colorado, or Southern Utah.
If we are all college football fans, why aren’t more people banging on the table demanding change like me? The game is changing for the worse and the playoff committee and analysts just sit idly by and pass this trash on to fans like it’s good football. Teams who play a weak non-conference schedule are rewarded with high rankings, and spots in the playoffs despite untenable schedules. There are only 13 Saturdays of regular season college football. No weekend should feature a mediocre schedule of games! What is it going to take to get more non-conference matchups like USC vs Miami, Auburn vs Oregon, or TCU vs Ohio State in the regular season?
Many people applaud Alabama for scheduling their annual neutral site game to open up the season. However, I’d argue that those games have hurt college football. Where have the days gone where teams have the balls to schedule a home-and-home series with another Power 5 opponent. Alabama hasn’t played a non-conference away game since Penn State in 2011. Here comes the “Nick Saban said Bama scheduled Mercer because no one else would play them” line. You really believe that USC, Penn State, or Wisconsin wouldn’t have rather scheduled a home-and-home series against Alabama instead of a neutral cite game? This is not an indictment exclusively on the Crimson Tide.
Think about this: Before their 2017 neutral site game against Michigan, Florida hadn’t traveled outside of the state of Florida for a non-conference game since 1991.
College football ratings will continue to fall as long as nothing changes. The question is, will the powers that be ignore this problem staring them in the face, or will they take decisive and immediate action to rectify the problem? It would be extremely simple for all Power 5 conferences to play nine conference games, two Power 5 non-conference games, and one game to give the little guys some money. This would fix the scheduling disparity between conferences, and provide fans with more inter-conference matchups to be interested in. If you go down the list of the top twenty-five most watched games of 2017, all of the games are either conference matchups or power 5 non-conference games.
Many people would argue that this schedule nonsense has been going on forever, it’s just the way of the college football world. I’d argue that the landscape of sports is changing right before our eyes. Every year, people get more and more options for entertainment, and mediums to consume them. Every sport now has to earn their viewers on an annual basis. The days of people just watching any old game just because it is on are over. Ratings will continue to decline as long as these horrible scheduling practices stay in place. These pitiful scheduling practices will remain in place until teams are penalized and miss the college football playoffs.
There is a foreseeable downside to more competitive schedules for Power 5 teams that I will acknowledge. There will be less 8, 9, and 10 win seasons for fringe teams. That means more of you will be demanding your coaches gets fired. Pick your poison college football fans. Do you want a better slate of games all season? Or do you want your team to have a chance to go undefeated?