• JohnWallStreet
  • Posts
  • College Football Tracking for Record Viewership as Sports Fans Stay in Bundle

College Football Tracking for Record Viewership as Sports Fans Stay in Bundle

College Football Tracking for Record Viewership as Sports Fans Stay in Bundle

The Pay TV universe continues to erode. Less than 76 million homes now subscribe to a multi-channel service (down from ~79 million in Dec. ‘22).

But that overarching macro trend has not impacted college football viewership. In fact, ratings across the sport are up 15% YoY and ‘23 is tracking to be the most watched season of all-time (previous record: 2015).

There is a logical explanation for the diverging narratives.

Cord cutting is clearly very real.

However, “what we’ve seen is [the phenomenon] is happening all around sports, not to sports. The people who are the heaviest sports viewers, they’re staying in the bundle,” Mike Mulvihill (president, insights and analytics, Fox Corporation) said.

And those individuals are getting access to more college football windows on the widely distributed broadcast networks and on ESPN.

“What we’re seeing [in the viewership data] is the power of having more games on the biggest and best available platforms,” Mulvihill said.


Make authentic connections with your fans through premium storytelling. Sport & Story is powered by industry leaders with decades of experience developing, producing, and distributing content in the professional and college sports space.

Categories of content include:

  • Follow Documentaries: All access behind-the-scenes of for one or many teams.

  • Featured Storytelling: Long-form historical documentaries and short-form vignettes.

  • Access-Based Storytelling: All-access series that tells the inside story of sports across the fall, winter, and spring seasons.

  • Anthology Series: Long-form documentary presentations that focus on the rich history of the people, teams, and events that tell the winning story of the organization.

  • Film Room: These all-access segments feature current coaches, guest analysts, and featured athletes breaking down plays and players.

Reach out to Sport & Story today to launch your next content and fan engagement platform.

Sports has encountered an economic problem because non-sports fans, who had long been supplementing the cost of sports programming on television, now have alternative entertainment options.

But the bulk of those exiting the Pay TV universe weren’t watching games to begin with. So, while the number of households with traditional cable or a vMVPD subscription has fallen dramatically in recent years, the realistic TAM for sports programmers hasn’t.

Sports properties are, however, finding increasing disparity between broadcast and cable distribution. Those with extensive broadcast exposure have been able to retain the bulk of their viewership as Pay TV penetration dwindles. Properties airing predominantly on cable networks have experienced a dip (see: NBA’s national regular season ratings).

A meaningful number of high-profile college football games migrated from cable to broadcast this year. In fact, through Week 11, there had been 24 more games on major broadcast networks.

“This is the first year of the new Big Ten [media rights] deals, so [there are] more windows on both NBC and CBS than you would have had a year ago,” Mulvihill said. And “we have [had] a few additional [games] because we’ve opened up more late-night windows.”

Tack on the 10 games the CW has carried, and the five additional games ESPN cleared this season, and it adds up to significantly more coverage for the sport across the biggest media platforms.

The NFL is also in the process of setting ratings marks in ‘23. Per game viewership has reached an eight-year high.

And like college football, an increasing number of league games are appearing on broadcast television.

The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) took its Monday Night Football package, which had been exclusively a cable package, and made it available to both cable and broadcast viewers.

“There’s sort of a trend across all of sports whereas things are shifting, and in some cases shifting back, to broadcast that’s really paying off,” Mulvihill said.

To be clear, it’s not as if sports fans are watching games via bunny ears (or the modern equivalent). Moving games to broadcast is significant because of how widespread and powerful the network reach can be inside the bundle.

There are likely some mechanical attributes contributing to college football’s ratings success this season too, though they are harder to quantify.

“The passion and enthusiasm fans, and especially student fans, bring into the building is becoming [increasingly] rare in sports and that contributes to the popularity [on television],” Mulvihill said.

Some industry insiders suspected pending realignment (which will threaten long-time regional rivalries), the payment of NIL compensation to players (which some argue makes college sports more akin to the pros) and/or the rise of the transfer portal would temper fan interest in college athletics.

But none of those changes have altered the sport’s trajectory.

In fact, one could argue the portal has contributed to the parity driving excitement across the sport this fall. And Playfly’s newly released College Football Fan Score report seemingly provides evidence that both NIL and conference realignment are popular with younger fans.

90% of fans 18-34 see conference realignment as a positive (or neutral) move for collegiate athletics, and 75% of fans polled from the same demographic believe NIL has had a positive impact.

“What is so impactful here is that the younger demographic of fans is not only in favor of the changes, but are leaning in more from an engagement standpoint as those changes play out,” Gregg Leibman (head of research, Playfly Sports) said. “A shocking 50% of 18-34 [year old fans] said they will watch more games [post realignment] vs. only 4% stating that they will watch fewer games.”

That is among the reasons college football viewership should experience further lift in ’24. Oklahoma and Texas are also set to begin play in the SEC, and four new schools will join both the Big Ten and Big 12.

“When [realignment] actually comes into play, and we have [some super premium] games like USC-Michigan, Oregon-Ohio State, it’s going to be a big positive,” Mulvihill said.

Those matchups might not end up on FOX, but they’ll be on broadcast television somewhere.

2024 will also be the first year of the SEC’s new broadcast deal with DIS. That means the SEC will be moving off CBS and the 3:30pm EST window will become fully available to the Big Ten. CBS is certain to carry more Big Ten windows in ‘24, and one would expect ABC to have as many or more SEC games as CBS aired this year.

“So, distribution will be better next year, and you’ll have more of those games that are capable of doing eight or nine million viewers,” Mulvihill said.

Another double-digit increase might be too much to ask across the entirety of the sport. But continuation of positive viewership trends seems likely.

It’s worth noting that college football’s previous most watched year occurred prior to out-of-home viewership being included in ratings calculations. So, the new record does come with some semblance of an asterisk.

Top 5 Sports Business Headlines
Click here to subscribe to Sport & Story Daily, your daily business tip sheet.

⚾️ Shohei Ohtani becomes first 2-time unanimous MVP
🏈 Aaron Rodgers eyeing a December comeback
🚫 MLB cancels Paris games in 2015?
🎙 Ian Eagles addresses criticisms of Al Michaels