Clemson won a thrilling 31-28 national title game over Alabama. No, it wasn’t USC vs. Texas. But, it was the most one could reasonably expect from such a game. However, the game’s awesomeness did not translate into ratings. This year’s game ranked below last year’s Alabama-Clemson matchup and well below Ohio State-Oregon.
There’s a reason for this, and it goes beyond having the playoff on New Year’s Eve. Those ratings fit a broader pattern from the similar BCS title games.
College Football Is a Regional Sport: Despite ESPN’s best promotional job, College Football is not a national sport. It’s a regional one. The rabid core of national “college football” fans is small. Most fans follow the sport through the prism of their local team and region. Clemson vs. Alabama is an inter-conference matchup. But, it’s a team from Alabama playing a team from South Carolina. That’s not going to engage the casual audience outside the former Confederacy. We saw it when LSU played Alabama in a rematch. We saw it when Florida State played Auburn.
SEC Viewership Is Constant: The SEC has the most rabid college football fans. Birmingham always has the highest TV market share. People actually go to the conference title games. SEC fans watch the title game come what may. Adding Alabama into the playoff or the final, for all the brand power, doesn’t affect ratings. Those fans watch regardless.
Traditional Brands Matter, But Only a Few Of Them: We have a small sample size with the playoff. But, we can look at the BCS title games to get a broader sample. When there is a bump in the rating, it is because Texas, Ohio State, or Notre Dame were playing. That mattered more than the quality of the game. We could add Michigan in there if the Wolverines ever reach a title game. That’s about it. Even famous football schools such as Florida State, Oklahoma, and USC had little impact.
Clemson Is Not a Traditional Football Brand: This isn’t a knock on Clemson. But, the school’s consistent national football success is a recent phenomenon, basically the last few seasons. It does not have the accrued pull of schools that have been on television playing big games for 40-50 years. One-half or one-third the size of some of the bigger football powers, Clemson does not have the huge national alumni base of an Ohio State. Many people outside the South would not even know where Clemson is located.