Like them or not, it’s hard to dispute the force of the University of Alabama and the passion behind the Crimson Tide’s success. Under Coach Nick Saban, who has five national titles to his credit (four with the Tide), Alabama is the only team to have played in each of the first two years of the College Football Playoff—and could be on its way to a third. Two seasons ago, in the first College Football Playoff, the team lost in the semifinals against eventual champion Ohio State. But the Tide returned to prove itself a year later, winning the national championship in a 45-40 thriller over Clemson at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Of course, it’s not just Tide fans who are perpetually excited about postseason college football. Executives at the College Football Playoff, dozens of bowl games and athletic conferences around the country work year-round to generate interest after college football’s regular season ends.
This season, the spotlight falls on Florida’s Tampa Bay area, which will host the biggest prize of all—the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on January 9 at 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Buccaneers. The Peach Bowl in Atlanta and the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale will serve as sites of the semifinals on December 31.
“For our community to be the first host in the Southeast of this new playoff championship is truly an honor,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “We’re doing anything and everything we can to meet and exceed the expectations of the student-athletes, the fans and everybody involved.”
This year, college football’s postseason impacts Florida more than any other state. In addition to the CFP title game in Tampa, nine bowl games will be played across the state in December and January. Plus, on December 3, Orlando will host the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, originally awarded to Charlotte but moved as a result of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 law. Steve Hogan, the CEO of Florida Citrus Sports, said the number of bowl games in addition to the unexpected ACC game are all significant for the state. “With the ACC championship and the national championship being the new entrants, it really is a winner.”
While the College Football Playoff has ushered in a period of relative stability in what used to be a chaotic method of determining a national champion, changes to the overall format of bowl games and postseason action are still constantly being evaluated. Last April, the NCAA Division I Council placed a moratorium on the certification of new bowls until at least 2020 after the sheer number of bowl games (a record 41 last season, including the championship game) led to organizers accepting teams without winning records. Last season, three teams with 5-7 records—Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State—were chosen to fill some of the 80 bowl slots available. In June, the council further clarified its postseason rules by declaring that all 6-6 eligible teams will have to be chosen before a team with a losing record can be considered.
Before bowl season and the College Football Playoff begin, some of the most-watched games of the season will take place in conference championships held the first weekend of December. During last year’s Southeastern Conference title game in Atlanta between Alabama and Florida, CBS scored a victory with the season’s highest-rated and most-watched game, which averaged 12.76 million viewers. Fox also fared well that day with the Big Ten Championship Game between Michigan State and Iowa in Indianapolis. It attracted an average of 9.8 million viewers and a household rating of 5.7, an increase of 61 percent and 63 percent, respectively, than the year before.
Even without a stake in the CFP, the Mid-American Conference title game at Ford Field in Detroit between Bowling Green and Northern Illinois had a 40 percent increase in ratings on ESPN2 from the same matchup the year prior. Going into the title game, NIU had an overall record of 8-4 and its sixth straight West Division title while Bowling Green was 9-3 with its third straight title in the East Division. The MAC also tied a conference record previously set in 2012 by sending seven of its member teams to bowl games.
While those games have track records of success, the Big 12—one of the five power conferences—has struggled to get its own game back in the mix. After conference realignment left it with 10 teams, the Big 12 was barred by previous NCAA rules from hosting a championship game (only allowed for conferences with at least 12 teams). The lack of a title game proved disastrous in 2014 when two teams—Baylor and TCU—were both declared champions. And both schools were left out of that year’s four-team CFP, which instead included teams that had won championship games in other conferences.
However, in January, the NCAA reversed its 12-team rule, and in June, the Big 12 announced that it would host a title game starting in 2017 for its top two teams. (The game will be held in Arlington, Texas.) Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement after the news was released: “Given our round-robin, nine-game scheduling model, it is expected the Big 12 champion will be uniquely positioned for College Football Playoff consideration. I would argue there will be no path more difficult than our champion’s.”
Move to Orlando
When Clemson and North Carolina squared off last year in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, a crowd of 74,514 fans filled Bank of America Stadium. It was the largest crowd in the 11-year history of the event and the largest in the stadium’s 20-year history, surpassing the previous record set by the NFL’s Carolina Panthers during the 2014 season.
That’s the good news. Now the bad news for Charlotte: In late September, the ACC announced that its football championship wouldn’t return to Bank of America Stadium this season as originally scheduled, one of several championships the conference chose to relocate from North Carolina citing concerns over House Bill 2, a law eliminating anti-discrimination protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.
In its place, the ACC awarded this year’s football championship to the 65,000-seat Camping World Stadium in Orlando. Hogan acknowledged that the circumstances to win the business weren’t ideal but “it was something that you certainly wanted to be ready for should you be needed.”
Because the stakes were pulled up from North Carolina on short notice, there was no formal request for proposal for any of the other ACC market cities interested in hosting the championship event. Yet, for a city routinely accustomed to handling an astounding million visitors a week for business and leisure throughout the year, Orlando was ready. The main obstacle was clearing any scheduling conflicts, of which there was one: the Florida High School Athletic Association’s state high school football playoffs, to be played the first two weekends of December at the stadium. However, Hogan said the association was “already working toward a model in the future that would be a one-weekend model. It was a matter of them being willing to deploy that a year earlier than they anticipated doing.”
So, the stadium will host the ACC championship as that game was originally scheduled, December 3, and then will host the FHSAA December 8–10. “Those are important events. We want to keep them (the FHSAA) here in the stadium for sure, but the ACC opportunity was a good one. They understood that,” Hogan said.
In addition to the ACC championship, Camping World Stadium is the only venue to host three college bowl games—the AutoNation Cure Bowl, the Russell Athletic Bowl and the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Last year’s Citrus Bowl between Michigan and Florida drew 63,113 fans, a 30 percent increase from the year before. It also attracted its largest television audience with 8.8 million viewers, 46 percent higher than the previous year.
Hogan said the opportunity to add the ACC championship to an already robust lineup of bowl games is crucial to helping market Orlando as a destination. “I don’t think a lot of communities put the proper numbers on the value of TV exposure and marketing of your destination,” he said.
Peachy in Atlanta
December has shaped up quite nicely for Atlanta from a collegiate football standpoint. The first weekend of the month, the Southeastern Championship Game will be played at the Georgia Dome. And after a two-year wait, Atlanta is finally in the rotation for one of the College Football Playoff semifinals; on December 31, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will be played for the 25th time at the dome, with the winner heading to the national championship.
In a way, the bowl game will mark a final hurrah for the stadium, which opened in 1992 and will be demolished next year. In its place, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is expected to open in time for the 2017 NFL season, when it will host home games of the Atlanta Falcons. It has also been chosen to serve as the site of the 2018 CFP National Championship Game, the 2019 Super Bowl and the SEC championship through 2026.
In the meantime, organizers in Atlanta—the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the Atlanta Sports Council, the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Falcons, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the state of Georgia—are preparing this season’s postseason games as if the CFP title game is being held there this time around instead of next season. They’ve created what’s called the “Door to Dome” philosophy, designed to impress the schools’ athletes and fans once they arrive. “The city is going to have a look and a feel like a Super Bowl or Final Four,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. “A lot of things we’re doing this year will be foundations.”
The college football look in downtown Atlanta had already began in 2014 with the move of the College Football Hall of Fame to its new home near Centennial Olympic Park and just a short walk from the Georgia Dome. In conjunction with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the 12th annual National Hall of Fame Salute will take place in Atlanta to honor this year’s 16 inductees. After their formal induction on December 6 at the National Football Foundation dinner at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the legends will assemble again in Atlanta for a multi-day celebration at the football game and the Hall of Fame. “There’s no doubt, along with having the College Hall of Fame in Atlanta, that we are the capital of college football,” said Stokan.
Next year will also be notable for Atlanta in that it will host not one, but two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games. When Alabama and Florida State meet at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 2, it will mark the 10th rendition of the classic, and two days later, Georgia Tech will face off there against Tennessee.
The early blockbuster games date back to before the creation of the College Football Playoff, when the Peach Bowl felt it had been left out of the mix to determine a national champion. Stokan was intent on keeping the bowl game on the map, so to speak. “I said, ‘Let’s flip the season and create a bowl-type atmosphere to celebrate the kickoff of college football.’ Our vision was, along with that, to move the College Football Hall of Fame here and have the enshrinement ceremony with the Hall of Famers like the NFL does in Canton,” said Stokan.
The Ratings Game
As Atlanta readies for its first semifinal hosting duties this year, executives at the College Football Playoff have been laying the groundwork for all games to be a success with television viewers, something that turned out to be a significant problem last season. The 2015 semifinals were played on a weekday New Year’s Eve, a factor that ultimately proved unpopular with viewers; roughly 13 million fewer tuned in for the first matchup between Clemson and Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl than had watched the inaugural early semifinal the year before. In the evening hours, it wasn’t much better with the Cotton Bowl semifinal between Alabama and Michigan State, when about 10 million fewer people watched than the year before. Overall, ratings were down about 36 percent for the two games than the year prior.
This year, the semifinals will be held on New Year’s Eve again, but with a distinction—it falls on a Saturday rather than a Thursday. While the CFP initially hoped to make the semifinals an annual New Year’s Eve tradition, it adjusted its thinking following last year’s sinking ratings numbers to avoid all future New Year’s Eves that fall on a weekday (unless that day is a designated federal holiday). “We tried to do something special on New Year’s Eve, but we learned that more people would be able to experience the games on a different day,” said CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock. “More specifically, we learned that we can do better than playing on a weekday New Year’s Eve.”
Ratings for the championship game, however, were also down: An estimated 25.7 million viewers watched the ESPN broadcast, which was 23 percent fewer than the previous year. However, streaming numbers for the finals trended upward. The CFP title game produced the best result ever for ESPN’s streaming service, WatchESPN, excluding the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Compared to the CFP’s inaugural title game, WatchESPN pulled in an increase of 23 percent in average-minute impressions, 38 percent in unique viewers and 32 percent in total minutes.
The Tampa Bay Way
Officials in Tampa are hoping the ratings turn in their favor this season. For nearly five years, Tampa Bay organizers had a vision of how they would put their own stamp on a possible CFP championship game—even before they were awarded the opportunity to host.
Like the state’s orange groves, their ideas bear fruit. The Tampa Bay delegation picked up good pointers from attending each of the first two championships in Arlington, Texas, and Glendale, Arizona, but have come up with their own unique ways to feature the best of what they offer in the lead-up to the game on January 9, a Monday.
“The College Football Playoff has done an outstanding job of creating some amazing events that lead into the national championship game itself,” said the Tampa Bay Sports Commission’s Higgins. “We really wanted to work to provide a great backdrop for those events and provide a great championship campus that’s walkable, enjoyable and along the water in downtown Tampa.”
So the Tampa Bay organizing committee came up with the idea of the Championship Beach Bash, a free event the Sunday before the championship game at Pier 60 Park in Clearwater Beach. Plans include live music, games, pep rallies, bands and cheerleaders.
Plus, only in a city that’s not land-locked can something like the Championship Yacht Village be offered. Boat-owning football fans can drop anchor on the Hillsborough River at the Tampa Convention Center if they reserve their space in advance. The purchase, of course, will include tickets to the championship game along with access to some of the VIP parties.
All of that leaves the CFP’s Hancock glowing over Tampa Bay’s preparations. “When we look for sites, we look for places that have first-class infrastructure—being hotels, airport, stadiums, venues that fans can enjoy outside the stadium—then we look for a welcoming, warm spirit among the people in the city, which we tend to judge by looking at the organizing committee members and getting a handle on how important the event is from the civic leaders,” said Hancock. “Tampa graded high in all of those.”
Down the Road
Atlanta is already working toward the title game in 2018. Beyond that, the 2019 game will be staged in Santa Clara, California, while New Orleans will host in 2020. “I’m very pleased to say and point out that the first six championship games will be in a different state,” said Hancock. “We think that’s pretty cool.”
Still more possibilities exist down the road. Detroit and Minneapolis were among the cities whose bids were rejected during the most recent bidding cycle that concluded earlier this year, and Hancock has been on record to say that the championship should be moved around and exposed to fans in different parts of the country.
For the next several years, though, the title game will be primarily in a region that’s crazy about college football, starting with Tampa this year. “College football is loved by so many across the entire country,” Higgins said, “but when you specifically look at the Southeast, and the passion and affinity for college football in this region of the country, it’s truly incredible.”