The 2021 college football season was fantastic.
It had all the elements of intrigue to keep fans captivated from Saturday to Saturday — and every game in between.
Fans returned to the stands after an abbreviated and disjointed COVID season which had no non-conference games, quarantines galore, and teams completely opting out of bowl games to give their players some much-needed rest and reprieve.
Playing games in half empty (or even empty) stadiums took its toll on the game. Players didn’t experience nearly the same emotions in an empty arena, and fans didn’t consume the lifeless games with near the same veracity.
The 2020 wasn’t any fun for college football.
Enter 2021, the year in which two CFP first-timers made their debut. There was no Ohio State or Oklahoma, Clemson, or LSU. Instead, they were replaced with a Michigan program that has been struggling to find its footing for much of the last decade and a Group of 5 school that finally crashed the party. Cincinnati had been on the cusp of greatness for a few years, but a victory over Notre Dame and some Power Five chaos punched their ticket.
Despite the newcomers, the Championship ended up with two traditional SEC powers, Alabama and Georgia. And while Georgia wasn’t truly an underdog, there were storylines galore to explore.
Could Kirby Smart finally outduel his mentor, Nick Saban?
Could Georgia end its 41 year championship drought?
Could the walk-on Stetson Bennett best the Heisman winner, Bryce Young?
All the questions were answered affirmatively and in dramatic fashion. It was a 60-minute heavyweight bout that had this football fan glued to his seat.
However, it failed to captivate the nation the way a game like that should. While the game was viewed by 22.6 million, up from the 18.6 million who watch Alabama’s blowout win over Ohio State last season, it was still the second lowest title game in the last 16 years … and the lowest non-COVID game.
The 2015 Championship Game between Ohio State and Oregon drew a Playoff record 34.2 million viewers. So why wouldn’t this post-COVID season provide a bigger bump? The NFL is up 10% across the board and holds 91 of the top 100 most viewed telecasts during the expanded 17 game season. It’s clear that America still loves football.
So why not the CFP Championship?
The Rose Bowl featuring Ohio State and Utah was the highest rated non-CFP game drawing an estimated 16.6 million viewers, which was nearly the same as the Cotton Bowl CFP Semifinal.
Alabama and Georgia provided a great product that drew both fan bases and the hard core college football fan, but few others on a national level. One major downside for some fans is the fact that both of those teams come from the SEC. In the SEC, football is as intertwined in the culture as iced tea and grits, and everyone in the SEC would be content to have an all SEC title game every year.
But is that best for college football?
It’s not the fault of Georgia and Alabama. They were the two best teams, and they provided a great product. It’s up to college football to de-regionalize its Playoff. More viewers nationwide translate to increased revenues for everyone, including the SEC.
The NFL has a way to draw a massive audience, even in remote northern cities like Green Bay and Buffalo. So market size doesn’t matter. College football must find a way to reengage the Northeast and West Coast. Much of the Pac-12 currently plays too many games at terrible kick times in font of half-filled stadiums. It’s a long term problem that the sport must address if it wants to grow the pie.
Lack of viewership won’t hurt the SEC or the Big Ten. They’re doing fine. But if college football wants to grow like the NFL, it needs national play. Maybe CFP expansion and new teams ultimately hoisting the trophy will help broaden national appeal. Ninety percent of college football is lagging behind, and they need to catch up.
But that’s not Bama or Georgia’s problem.