BCS: Still Less

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Imagine how many viewers ESPN could collect if TCU were battling Auburn this weekend?

In a plus-one matchup, 30 million or more viewers would have gathered in front of their TV sets to see if the 13-0 Horned Frogs could jump over the 14-0 Tigers and earn the mythical national championship.

But alas with the Bowl Championship Series mess that has put the prevent defense on any kind of top-level college football playoff system, we’ll never know if the men in purple could have halted Heisman winner Cam Newton and the toilet-papering of Toomer’s Corner.

Instead, ESPN will have to be content that the rookie run of its four-year, $500 million rights deal with the BCS yielded cable’s top telecast ever: 27.3 million for Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS national championship game on Jan. 10, which wiped out Jenn Sterger’s favorite gunslinger from the top of the Nielsen text. Brett Favre’s first game as a Minnesota Viking against his first club, the Green Bay Packers, averaged 21.8 million Monday Night Football viewers on Oct. 5, 2009, and had been the most in cable history until Monday night.

ESPN’s coverage of the granddaddy of them all, TCU’s 21-19 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, averaged 20.6 million, fourth all-time in cable’s ratings pantheon, behind the contests mentioned above and the 21.4 million for New Orleans’ stomping of New England on the Nov. 30, 2009 MNF matchup.

But traditionalists and broadcast backers are quick to point out that the 2011 Rose and championship contests didn’t measure up to the numbers their predecessors’ threw off in the 2010 Bowl season. Indeed, ABC scored with 24 million for Ohio State-Oregon in the Rose and notched 30.8 million for Alabama-Texas in the BCS title tilt (still ESPN’s initial entry ranks fifth of the 13 BCS championship games played thus far)…That it’s always going to be tough for cable, even the Bristol behemoth, to overcome the older medium’s edge in households. In this case it’s 116 million in the broadcast universe during the 2010-11 TV season, versus about 100 million subscribers for ESPN.

As to Oklahoma-UConn in the Fiesta Bowl (10.8 million) and Stanford-Virginia Tech (10.7 million) in the Orange Bowl, well, those mismatches produced the expected routs that could only appeal to alumni, die-hard college footballers and those with a nickel or three on the outcome.

However, ESPN’s coverage of Ohio State holding on against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, garnered 13.6 million viewers, more than the 10.9 million for Iowa-Georgia Tech (Orange) on the equivalent night of the 2010 BCS season on Fox, which underscores the value of the Buckeyes’ pedigree. Along those lines, the absence of Alabama, USC, Texas and Florida, collegiate pigskin blue bloods with national followings, hurt ESPN’s inaugural season with the property.

Next year, though, ESPN will be measured against its own 2011 BCS performance, which should generate some favorable comparisons if the “right” teams are in the huddle.

But that wouldn’t be as great a variable if there were a tournament of some sort. Regardless of the color of the jerseys and the decal on the helmets, participants in a college football playoff system would bring millions more general sports fans and college football backers — not to mention gobs more green in rights fees — to the small screen.

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