Column: Moving semifinals to New Year's Eve a total flop

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Posted: Jan 01, 2016 7:52 PM
Column: Moving semifinals to New Year's Eve a total flop

MIAMI (AP) — The College Football Playoff is a marvelous thing.

The timing of the national semifinal games?

Boy, did they get that one wrong.

The Orange Bowl, a matchup between top-ranked Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma that kicked off in the late afternoon on New Year's Eve, could've passed for an Alamo or Holiday Bowl.

There simply wasn't the sort of buzz one would expect from a game of that stature, which surely had a lot to do with a 4 p.m. EST starting time, when many people were just wrapping up their final work day of 2015.

Ditto for the Cotton Bowl, which began shortly after Clemson finished off its 37-17 victory over the Sooners. While held in prime time, the game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Michigan State was overshadowed by New Year's celebrations around the country; in fact, the Tide's 38-0 rout ended just minutes before the crystal ball dropped in Times Square.

If that wasn't enough of a downer, playing the semifinal games on Dec. 31 left what is traditionally the biggest day of the season — New Year's Day — feeling like a bit of an afterthought, not all that different than staging the championship game in women's basketball 24 hours after the men play for the title at the Final Four.

The whole fabric of the college bowl season is out of whack. How are we supposed to get fired up for Rose, Sugar and Fiesta bowls when two more important games have already been held and most folks are now focused on the Jan. 11 national championship?

This much is clear: the semifinal games should move back to New Year's Day. The other major bowls should serve as worthy prelims, not meaningless consolations.

Of course, the powers-that-be are refusing to acknowledge the obvious.

This is, after all, the sport that nonsensically resisted a playoff until last season.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, said he would await the ratings for the New Year's Day games before making any declarations on whether this worked.

"It's just not appropriate to talk until all the results are in," he said Friday. "I guess it's like asking a coach to talk about a whole game at halftime."

Well, let's throw out the talking points we know so far.

Start with ESPN's performance on New Year's Eve.

It was downright abysmal.

The Orange Bowl got a 9.1 rating, a plunge of 38.5 percent from last year's Rose Bowl (14.8) held in the same afternoon time slot but on Jan. 1. The number of viewers fell even more — dropping 44.5 percent from 28,164,000 for the Rose to just 15,640,000 for the Orange, a staggering decline for such a high-profile event.

The Cotton Bowl endured a similar nosedive. The 9.6 rating was down a whopping 36.8 percent from last year's 15.2 for the Sugar Bowl in the same time slot, while the total viewership crashed 34.4 percent, going from 28,271,000 to 18,552,000.

Of course, neither game was competitive, and that didn't help.

But there's no way to sugarcoat this debacle.

ESPN tried to make the best of the situation, pointing out that streaming views for the Orange and Cotton were up over last year's games. But that was like Custer trying to put a positive spin on Little Bighorn. In all likelihood, that increase could be attributed largely to those who might've been fully-engaged viewers if not for the ill-advised schedule.

What makes all of this more infuriating is that ESPN recognized the ratings Armageddon it was facing. At least a year ago, the network suggested holding the semifinal games on Jan. 2, which falls on a Saturday.

The College Football Playoff balked at that idea, not wanting to disrupt its plans to carve out a niche on New Year's Eve.

In retrospect, that decision is roughly akin to casting Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs.

We all got punked.

The semifinals games weren't even a hit on social media.

According to Nielsen, the Orange Bowl generated 487,000 tweets seen by 6.5 million people, a huge drop from what the Rose Bowl did a year ago: 2.6 million tweets viewed by 10.1 million people. The Orange Bowl took a similar hit compared to last season's Sugar Bowl.

But there was at least one positive to come out of this ratings fiasco.

ABC — part of the Disney empire along with ESPN — made a desperate bid to get people to tune in, which might go down as the most hilarious attempt at product placement in broadcasting history.

According to Deadspin, Wednesday's episode of soap opera "General Hospital" made no less than seven references to the playoff, displayed the CFP logo prominently in the background of a scene, and even had some of the actors wearing T-shirts bearing the playoff motto "Who's In?"

Well, it didn't work.

Do us all a favor: Move these games back to New Year's Day.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org