_ MARKET SIZE. In the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, postseason viewership often varies significantly based on whether the teams involved hail from cities big or small. In college football, that’s less of a factor, though it didn’t hurt the 2006 title game that a school from Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest market, was involved.
The program from South Bend, Ind., of course is a classic example of national appeal.
“(Alabama is) the franchise right now and another mega brand,” Magnus said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s Tuscaloosa _ the TV markets don’t matter when it comes to teams like that.”
_ ON-FIELD THEATER. One of the biggest factors in the final rating won’t be known until the game kicks off. If the score stays close, more viewers will stick around to the end _ and more will join in. Magnus believes the rise of social media will increase the audience of tight games even more than in the past, as casual fans learn through Twitter or Facebook that they can catch a tense finish if they tune in.
The Longhorns’ 41-38 win featured 10 touchdowns, and the teams combined to score five times in the fourth quarter. Neither school ever led by more than 12 points.
Notre Dame has had a penchant for close games all season and Alabama also has lately. But the other half of the entertainment equation _ high scoring _ may be less likely with these two programs. Each allows fewer than 11 points a game.
_ RAW NUMBERS. The Texas-USC title game set the record with a 21.7 rating _ 22 percent higher than the next best BCS championship. No. 2 all-time was the 2001 Oklahoma-Florida State final with a 17.8. The best ratings since 2006 were a 17.4 for both the 2007 Florida-Ohio State and 2008 LSU-Ohio State matchups.
The 2006 championship was on ABC, but the BCS games have since moved to cable. ESPN is in about 14 percent fewer homes than the traditional broadcast networks, though executives note that college football fans are more likely than the general population to have cable. Ratings since the switch have seemingly been more affected by the matchups and competitiveness of games than by their availability.
Regular-season viewership, while still strong, was down for college football this year. On ESPN’s networks, the average audience decreased more than 10 percent on ABC, almost 4 percent on ESPN, and nearly 13 percent on ESPN2 from 2011. SEC games on CBS also dropped 10 percent.
For the four BCS games so far, preliminary ratings are up 1 percent on ESPN from last season.
But Notre Dame and Alabama have already shown their ability to lure big audiences. The rating for the Tide’s SEC title game against Georgia _ essentially a national semifinal _ was up 34 percent from the previous year’s LSU-Georgia matchup. With an average of 16.2 million viewers, it was the season’s most-watched college football game before the bowls.
No. 2 was Notre Dame’s win over USC to clinch a berth in the BCS title game with 16.1 million viewers. That was the highest-rated Saturday night regular-season game on ABC since at least 1991.
Herbstreit is one of those sports fans who watch golf only when Tiger Woods is in contention on a Sunday. He considers Notre Dame-Alabama to be the college football equivalent of that.
“Without a doubt,” he said, “if you’re a college football fan, or even if you’re a fringe college football fan, you’re going to watch.”