With arguably the most intriguing matchup this side of the BCS championship game that was decided in waning moments, ESPN tackled an 11.3 U.S. rating, 13.1 cable mark, almost 13.1 million households and nearly 20.6 million viewers with its coverage of TCU-Wisconsin Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
The Rose Bowl, which kicked off after 5 p.m. (ET), averaged the third-largest audience ever on cable TV, according to Nielsen data, trailing only the 21.8 million for ESPN's Monday Night Football coverage of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 5, 2009 and the 21.4 million for the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints on Nov. 30, 2009.
Still, the audience was down 14% from the 24 million for last year's Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Oregon, which aired on ABC.
As for the Fiesta Bowl, ESPN scored a 6.2 U.S. rating and 7.1 cable mark. 7.1 million households and 10.8 million viewers on New Year's night, the sports programmer's second-best non-National Football League audience to date.
The Fiesta Bowl, though, was off 27.1% and 30.3%, respectively, from an 8.5 rating and 15.5 million viewers for the Sugar Bowl between Florida and Cincinnati in the same window on Fox last year. Gauged against the 2010 Fiesta Bowl between TCU and Boise State that ran on a Monday night on Fox, the 2011 edition of the game declined 21.8% from 13.8 million.
This year marks the first time all four BCS games and the national championship will air on ESPN, which wrested the rights from Fox in a four-year contract worth some $500 million. The broadcast universe reaches some 115 million households, compared with just under 100 million for ESPN.
On Jan. 3, ESPN will televise the Orange Bowl matching Stanford versus Virginia Tech, before airing the BCS title tilt between Oregon and Auburn on Jan. 10. That telecast may very well attract the largest audience in cable history.