The FCS title game ranked 6th out of 20+ championship games, which is honestly higher than some may expect. But the discussion was less about where the FCS ranked, and more about how and why the viewership was down from the previous year.
Last season’s FCS championship game between North Dakota State and South Dakota State drew 1.07 million viewers. This was aired on ABC, a major network, compared to the usual ESPN2 broadcast. But it was also aired at 1 p.m. CT on a Sunday while NFL games were being played.
The different TV slot resulted in a decline in eyeballs. The previous year’s title game between NDSU and Montana State drew 1.32 million viewers. This was aired at 11 a.m. CT on a Saturday on ESPN2, which has been the usual slot for this game.
Not counting the spring national title game, last season’s championship was the second-lowest watched since 2012.
NDSU vs. SDSU (ABC, Sunday) — 1.07 million
NDSU vs. Montana State (ESPN2) — 1.32 million
2021 Spring Championship:
SDSU vs. SHSU (ABC, Sunday) — 905K
NDSU vs. JMU (ABC) — 2.68 million
NDSU vs. EWU (ESPN2) — 1.00 million
NDSU vs. JMU (ESPN2) — 1.52 million
JMU vs. YSU (ESPN2) — 1.56 million
NDSU vs. Jacksonville State (ESPN2) — 1.35 million
NDSU vs. Illinois State (ESPN2) — 1.44 million
NDSU vs. Towson (ESPN2) — 1.2 million
NDSU vs. SHSU (ESPN2) — 1.1 million
Now, full disclosure, I didn’t mind the decision at the time to move last year’s title game to Sunday. Many others, who ended up being correct in their opinion, said it was dumb to go head-to-head with the NFL. Even if it was on ABC.
ABC naturally draws more eyeballs than ESPN2. In the 2019 season, the FCS title game between NDSU and James Madison aired on ABC on a Saturday and drew a whopping 2.68M, way up from 1M viewers the previous season and 1.32M in the 2021-22 game.
The thought process last year was that while the game was going up against the NFL, the ABC boost could get it somewhere between 1.3M and 2.7M. I thought it was worth the try. And selfishly, I liked that it resulted in a longer weekend and a longer tailgating scene. 11 a.m. kickoffs just feel so rushed.
The decision flopped, though, and viewership decreased.
One would logically think that the game would move back to the normal Saturday morning time slot to capture as many eyes as possible. But that may not be happening.
A source tells me it’s looking likely the game will be on ABC again this season, and that it would air on Sunday.
ESPN has the mindset that while there are fewer eyeballs and attention on the game on a Sunday on ABC compared to Saturday on ESPN2, they are happy to have something fill that ABC Sunday time slot that gets over 1M viewers.
In more specific words, “ESPN seems to think ABC’s profile for this championship is more important than maximizing viewership. They like how the FCS championship performed in that window.”
A final decision hasn’t been made yet. But it’s leaning this way.
I asked if this was an ESPN decision, an FCS decision, or a mutual decision. While ESPN has been collaborative with FCS representatives and has discussed options such as going back to Saturday morning or possibly even a Friday night game, I was told the final call on this will be ESPN’s.
And this particular call would be unfortunate.
The FCS has one of the very best postseason tournaments in college sports, despite some bracket structure warts that soon will be fixed. When games, whether it’s the quarterfinals, semifinals, or the championship are put on a major channel like ABC or ESPN on a Friday or Saturday, it gets more views than several bowl games on those same channels. The 2022 quarterfinals between SDSU and Holy Cross, for example, drew 1.53 million viewers on ESPN, which was more than nine bowl games.
The 24-team bracket is a fantastic way to determine the official NCAA Division 1 football national champion. And my goodness, the level of play deep in the bracket is so damn good. Think of how much combined talent there was on the field for the 2021 and 2022 semifinals and title games (SDSU, Montana State, NDSU, James Madison, Incarnate Word). We’re talking double-digit NFL Draft picks and double-digit UDFAs. We’re talking teams that are just straight-up better than some of the teams playing in bowl games in the big boy subdivision.
The FCS title game deserves the biggest spotlight possible. Not to be treated like filler.
Keeping it on Sunday, when you know the viewership is good but not as good as Saturday games, is a disservice to the subdivision, the fans, and the players that had to win at least three playoff games to get to that point.
Now, one could argue that the FCS should care more about the experience for those in attendance than chasing TV numbers. The beauty of the FCS playoffs and the subdivision as a whole is it doesn’t depend on TV revenue to survive. Having a later kickoff than 11 a.m. is just better for the players and tailgaters. Although this fan experience argument isn’t too strong, considering you’re pushing right up against Monday for people’s travel plans and work. Plus, it seems this is a TV decision anyway.
A stronger argument is that there really are no great TV slots during that week, the week before, or the week before that. You have the holidays, and also linear television is packed during that time with sporting events. And it’s only going to get more packed with the expanded College Football Playoff.
The usual 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2 slot isn’t great for players or the fans there. Some have said to put the game on ABC during that time. But it would run right into NFL pregame shows, and ESPN doesn’t want to schedule itself into that overlap. You can’t really start later in the day Saturday since the NFL is now playing that afternoon.
But what about Friday night?
That’s been done before in Frisco. The 2010-11 title game between EWU and Delaware was played on a Friday. I’d actually push hardest for that if I were an FCS representative. It’d be fun for the fans there and would have less TV competition.
There will be pros and cons no matter where you put the game. The argument against a Friday game is you’re asking fans there to take more days off of work, and I’ve heard traffic getting to the game midday on a Friday would be a concern.
It should be a simple numbers game, though. Testing out a major network vs. major competition was worth the risk for one year to see how it compared to ESPN2. And, as players like to say in my DMs, numbers don’t lie.
ESPN2 at 11 a.m. is the better option. And let’s be real, the FCS title game is going to have strong Midwest ties for years to come. Those folks, while not ideal, will have no problem doing tailgating activities at 6 a.m. Most of them are used to that early wake-up from previous Frisco experiences.
It’s not right to put a national title game with a fabulous, sold-out atmosphere and elite, next-level talent in the shadows of the NFL. Especially when you know there’s another option that draws more national interest and that fans in attendance are accustomed to.
I do genuinely believe that ESPN values and appreciates broadcasting the FCS championship. In fact, being on ABC last year came with more resources devoted to the broadcast. I noticed watching the replay that the broadcast had a step up in production quality from previous years with new features like graphics and animations that I hadn’t seen before. And if you think about it, getting 1 million people to watch a game in the middle of an NFL slate isn’t too bad, especially for a niche level of college football.
But whether they realize it or not, even with an improved broadcast on a huge network like ABC, ESPN would be devaluing the FCS by making this decision to air it on a Sunday again, knowing numbers wouldn’t be as strong compared to Saturday.
As a new TV deal for NCAA postseason tournaments nears, it’s important for the FCS to maximize its TV viewership. While it’s more likely than not that the FCS playoffs will be a part of a bundle package again, I can say that this tournament is one of a few that’s been at least talked about in terms of unpackaging and being sold separately to bidding networks. And any increase in TV revenue at least helps fund changes to the bracket structure.
Hopefully, the decision on when to air this season’s game isn’t ready for a final stamp just yet, and more conversation can be had about what’s really the right call here for the FCS brand (shouldn’t this be important?), how FCS fans feel (shouldn’t you pay attention to this?), and what’s going to get the most interest from TV viewers (isn’t this what ESPN would want?).
I doubt this column changes any minds. But hey, I ripped the lazy coaches poll last year and how it shouldn’t be a part of the FCS playoff selection criteria. St. Thomas ranked, seriously? At least do some research on who they played and how they fared against their lone D1 scholarship opponent. Well, I was told a couple of weeks later that the playoff committee discussed if that poll should be omitted.
Later that season, I published a scathing column on how the FCS playoff bracket structure needed changes, proposing they seed 16 teams where seeds 9-16 host teams in the 17-24 pool in the first round with a minimum bid to host, thus avoiding unbalanced matchups early in the bracket, making the hosting decision more clear, and making the bracket less regionalized overall. Well, there’s a mostly identical proposal close to being approved for either this season or in 2024.
So how much will these words move the needle? I don’t know. Probably none.
But here’s a logical opinion anyway: Move the FCS title game back to its usual Saturday morning slot so it gets the best spotlight available. And here’s a warmer take: If there’s an open TV window on ESPN2/ESPN/ABC, try a Friday night game this season. It’d be fun for those there and for those watching on TV.