ESPN said Tuesday that 18.7 million people watched the game across ESPN’s various platforms. That’s a lot of people, of course. But it’s also more than six million fewer people than watched LSU beat Clemson for the national title on Jan. 13, 2020.
The number of people who watched Monday night’s game is also fewer than the number of people who watched each of the semifinals on Jan. 1. ESPN said that approximately 19.2 million people watched Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Clemson, while 18.8 million people watched Alabama’s Rose Bowl win over Notre Dame.
It’s the first time in playoff history that the title game has had fewer viewers than the semifinals. And according to Sports Media Watch, it’s the least-viewed national championship game dating back to the start of the BCS.
The relatively low number of people watching the championship game caps an underwhelming season of television viewership for college football. The sport has not been spared the viewer declines that have impacted most major sports in their 2020 seasons.
Ratings were down across the board for college football conferences as teams played truncated schedules because of the coronavirus pandemic. The highest-rated regular-season game of the year came in November when Notre Dame beat Clemson in double overtime. That game on Nov. 7 came on the same day the presidential election was called for President-elect Joe Biden and NBC even cut into the broadcast to show Biden’s victory speech.
Assuming the audience that ESPN tweeted Tuesday night is the final number, it’s a very disappointing one for the network. Alabama and Ohio State are seen as two of the biggest draws in college football, though the Crimson Tide were an 8.5-point favorite and ended up winning by 28 points. It’s indisputable that the audience would be bigger if the game had been competitive in the second half.
Highest-rated CFP title game was in 2015
Monday night’s game was the seventh title game of the College Football Playoff era and its audience was just over half of what the audience for the first CFP title game was.
The inaugural College Football Playoff national championship game between Oregon and Ohio State drew 34.6 million viewers as people were excited to watch a playoff in college football for the first time.
The audience for the second CFP title game shrank by eight million and had remained relatively stable since then. Before Monday night, the least-viewed championship game came when 25.3 million people watched Clemson beat Alabama in a thriller in 2017.