Back in Traditional Time Slots, College Football Thrives on ESPN

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A total of 28.4 million people watched Monday’s national championship game, ESPN said.

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Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

ESPN executives had some nervous moments during halftime of Monday night’s college football national championship. It appeared that a Georgia blowout, which looked likely, might lead fans to turn the game off.

They needn’t have worried. The network announced Tuesday that Alabama’s thrilling 26-23 comeback was watched by 28.4 million people; 27.4 million on the flagship channel, and another 1 million on ESPN2 and ESPNU as part of its “MegaCast” production. Last year’s game was watched on ESPN by 24.4 million viewers, with 25.7 million watching in 2016. Monday’s contest was the fifth-highest rated college football game ESPN has ever broadcast, and second-highest if the MegaCast is factored in, behind only Ohio State’s victory over Oregon in the 2015 championship game in the inaugural college football playoff.

The game capped a hugely successful college football bowl season for ESPN, as viewership was up for both its New Year’s Day slate of high-profile games and its entire 35-bowl-game season.

“When I look across the landscape of sports properties, it’s hard to argue that, from beginning to end, anything is as compelling as college football,” Burke Magnus, an ESPN executive, said before the game.

For the college football playoffs especially, however, scheduling heavily affects viewership. Part of the reason ESPN’s overall bowl ratings are up is because in the last two years both semifinals were played on New Year’s Eve.

“This was the first year really that the effort we put in with the commissioners to smooth out the N.Y.E. issue manifested itself in full bloom,” said Magnus, referring to ESPN’s successful effort to move some games off Dec. 31.

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