For ESPN, tis the season for college bowl game watching.
Over the course, the ESPN family of networks will air 33 of the 35 bowls (CBS has the Sun Bowl, Fox the Cotton), capped off by the five BCS contests. The action kicks off Dec. 17 with a trio of games -- Wyoming and Temple in the New Mexico Bowl on ESPN at 2 p.m., Utah State and Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato at 5:30 p.m. and La.-Lafayette and San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl at 9 p.m. - and culminates with the national championship game between LSU and Alabama on Jan. 9,
Coupled with Monday Night Football, the bowl games have historically made December ESPN's top-rated month.
" ‘Bowl Week' has morphed into' Bowl Season.' Generally, this is our high-rated time of year," said ESPN senior vice president of college sports programming Burke Magnus.
He noted that New Year's Day 2011 -- highlighted by 20.6 million watchers for the Rose Bowl battle between TCU and Wisconsin and another 10.8 million for the Fiesta Bowl matchup of Oklahoma and UConn -- was ESPN's top all-time delivery, averaging a 4.3 total-day rating.
Magnus said that by "reacquiring the BCS bowls, ESPN really wanted to make college football a year-round priority. Each weekend of the regular season is so important, incredibly vibrant, leading up to the bowl season and then all five BCS games." [Fox aired the BCS games from 2007-2010 save for the Rose Bowl; ABC ran the contests from 1998 through 2006 and the Rose through 2010, before all five were televised by ESPN in 2011.]
During the 2010-11 bowl season, ESPN/ABC aired 30 games that averaged a 3.8 U.S. household rating, 4.36 million households and 6.28 million viewers. The prior bowl season, ESPN/ABC ran 25 bowl games averaging a 3.9 U.S. rating 4.45 million households and 6.45 million viewers. Only one bowl game aired on ABC last bowl season, the Capital One on Jan. 1, compared with three in 2009-10: Capital One, Rose Bowl and the national championship game.
Could the LSU-Alabama matchup -- the SEC West rivals' Nov. 9 regular-season meeting drew 20 million on CBS, the most on Black Rock since 1989 as the Tigers prevailed 9-6 in OT -- supplant the Auburn-Oregon 2011 title game as the top-rated telecast in cable history with 27.3 million viewers?
"I think so," said Magnus. "The two teams have been No. 1 and No. 2 almost all season. We don't delve into how the BCS figures out the matchup. We just hope it's captivating."
He pointed out that last year's game was decided in the final minute spiking viewer interest and that is also performed very well on other platforms: 619,000 unique viewers on ESPN3.com, the broadband platform's fourth-best performance behind a trio of 2010 World Cup contests and gains ranging from 26% to 60% on ESPN.com and ESPN Mobile Web, relative to usage, page viewes and time spent metrics.
While noting there isn't any control for what happens on the field --Oklahoma drubbed UConn in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, 48-20 -- Magnus is bullish across the BCS games.
"I think we're looking at better numbers. The Rose Bowl is a terrific matchup between Oregon and Wisconsin, and the Fiesta has No. 3 and No. 4 in Oklahoma State and Stanford. In the Sugar Bowl, you have Michigan, which is returning to the relevance of its tradition, and Virginia Tech. The Orange Bowl is happy with Clemson and the Big East champion West Virginia."
With ESPN now in the second of its four-year, $500 million BCS deal, the 2012 games will match up against cable Nielsens from their 2011 counterparts, which faced comparisons from the Fox broadcasts in 2010.
"We didn't shy away from the comparisons, we presented both the U.S. and cable coverage ratings. The numbers were very competitive to broadcast," Magnus said. "We only had to go back three years to find the equivalent ratings on broadcast. [A bowl's rating] performance depends on the matchup and competitiveness of the game."
Relative to ads, ESPN said its college football and BCS sales have been very strong, "pacing above goal." Officials at the programmer attribute the uptick to a big return by the auto category and season-long support from the 15 BCS official marketing partners, including newcomers Dell and Unilever. All of this group, which includes BCS title-game sponsors (Discover Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl presented by Vizio, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Allstate BCS National Championship Game) bought major positions throughout the sport's regular season both on TV and other ESPN platforms.