College football bumps playoffs off New Year's Eve

Low ratings lead to future date changes

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CHICAGO — College football and television executives saw ratings for the College Football Playoff plunge and rightfully were horrified. Thursday, they did something about it.

Beginning with the 2017 season, all playoff semifinals will be played on either a Saturday or a sanctioned national holiday. This move shifts playoff games off working-day New Year’s Eve, which produced lower-than-expected television ratings last season.

On Jan. 1, 2015, the Rose Bowl match-up of Oregon-Florida State and Sugar Bowl game between Alabama-Ohio State both exceeded a 15.3 rating or about 18 million viewers apiece. Last season’s semifinals in the Cotton (Alabama-Michigan State) and Orange (Oklahoma-Clemson) bowls failed to register a 10.0 rating (about 11.5 million viewers).

The difference? Last year’s playoff bowls were held on Thursday, Dec. 31, a working day for most Americans. The Orange Bowl kicked off at 4 p.m. ET with the Cotton following at 8 p.m. ET. Many people simply were working during the early game and then out for New Year’s Eve festivities during the nightcap.

“For us, weekdays that are not holidays are probably not the best for fans,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told The Gazette this week. “This is all about making the game available to the most amount of fans as we can.”

This year, the playoff bowls (Fiesta and Peach) are held on New Year’s Eve, which is a Saturday, and kickoff is moved up an hour for both teams. The changes become major beginning in 2018-19 when the Cotton and Orange play host to semifinal games on Dec. 29. In 2019-20, the Fiesta and Peach will stage playoff bowls on Dec. 28.

The Rose and Sugar bowls are unaffected by the changes. Both will continue as New Year’s Day staples (except when Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday) with the Rose kicking off at 4:10 p.m. CT and the Sugar at 7:30 p.m. Those bowls will host semifinals in 2017-18, 2020-21 and 2023-24. The other years will feature a Big Ten/Pac-12 match-up in the Rose and an SEC-Big 12 game in the Sugar.

The Rose Bowl’s storied century-long tradition includes the Tournament of Roses Parade as well as an iconic sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains. The Sugar Bowl’s place as New Year’s Day’s primetime showcase was less secure. The Big Ten/Pac-12 match-up began in 1947, while the SEC-Big 12 match-up was agreed upon in 2013. Some observers have accused the Sugar Bowl of becoming the roadblock preventing playoff games from being staged every year on New Year’s Day.

“People have said to me, ‘Well, the Sugar Bowl doesn’t have a traditional window,’” Hancock said. “I said, ‘Yes they do.’ The Sugar Bowl and the SEC together have played many, many years on New Year’s Day. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize the Sugar Bowl as the linchpin at all. They’re where they are, and the Rose is where it is.”

Hancock said moving either bowl from its preferred date was not an option. Neither was airing the playoff games on different dates.

“Two different dates would be hard for coaches because of the difference in the days of rest,” Hancock said.


(asterisks indicate years when the schedule has been changed)

2016-17 Saturday, December 31 Fiesta and Peach

2017-18 Monday, January 1 Rose and Sugar

*2018-19 Saturday, December 29 Cotton and Orange

*2019-20 Saturday, December 28 Fiesta and Peach

2020-21 Friday, January 1 Rose and Sugar

2021-22 Friday, December 31 Orange and Bowl TBD (federal holiday)

2022-23 Saturday, December 31 Bowls TBD

2023-24 Monday, January 1 Rose and Sugar

*2024-25 Saturday, December 28 Orange and Bowl TBD

*2025-26 Saturday, December 27 Bowls TBD

NOTE: The Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls will play host to semifinals through at least through 2025-26. The other three semifinal bowls for 2021-22 and beyond will be determined in 2018.

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