The teams are in place for this year’s College Football Playoff: University of Alabama, Clemson University, The Ohio State University, and University of Washington. All four schools have something in common that has nothing to do with football: each one is Nike-sponsored.
That means exposure and eyeballs for the Nike swoosh, plastered all over the players’ jerseys and helmets, and on coaches’ apparel too. The question is: how many eyeballs will these games get?
This is only the third year of the College Football Playoff, the structure that replaced the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The college football season now ends in a playoff with four teams, chosen by committee, leading to a single championship game called the College Football Playoff National Championship.
The two semifinal games that determine the final matchup alternate between six bowls: Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, and Sugar, each with their own corporate naming rights sponsor. This year, the semifinal games are the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, and they’ll be played on December 31.
Last year, that didn’t go so well.
The Orange Bowl, between Clemson and Oklahoma, at 4:10 pm EST on December 31 on ESPN, saw a nearly 40% ratings drop compared to the equivalent semifinal game the year before. The Cotton Bowl, between Alabama and Michigan State, at 8 pm EST on December 31, saw a 35% ratings drop in total viewership.
When the disappointing ratings numbers came out, critics said that it was no surprise. From the moment the CFP announced it would hold the two semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, many said that ratings would suffer—and they did.
It took until this past summer for the CFP to cave and change its plan. It announced in July that it will abandon scheduling playoff games on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day beginning in 2018. After this season’s semifinal games on Dec. 31, the semifinal games next season will be on New Year’s Day. The next season, the two games will be on Dec. 29.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan tells Yahoo Finance this year’s semifinal games should fare better than last year’s because December 31 is a Saturday (last year it was a Thursday) and the CFP moved the kickoff times up one hour earlier. “Last year, the ratings went down because it was a weekday, a work day,” he says. “The good thing this year is, we’re on a Saturday. And they’ve moved the TV times… they won’t bang against all the New Year’s celebrations… Ratings will be great, college football is known for Saturdays.”
Nike spends big money on its long-term collegiate apparel deals, and this will be the third year in a row that the two final teams are both Nike-sponsored.
There’s big money in the bowl games. The four conferences with teams in the Playoff (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12) will each get $6 million this year to divide up evenly among their schools. Conferences get another $4 million for every team that makes a non-playoff bowl.
Back in 2011, the BCS National Championship Game was a rare Nike vs Under Armour matchup, with Oregon (flagship school of Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike) faced Auburn, the flagship Under Armour program. It was a big event for upstart Under Armour (and Auburn won); Nike is used to being on such a stage. In 2013, Alabama faced Notre Dame, then an Adidas school.
Clemson has an eight-year Nike contract worth $23 million deal; Washington has a 10-year, $23 million deal; Alabama has an eight-year, $30 million deal; and Ohio State has a gargantuan 15-year, $252 million deal that was the biggest ever at the time it was signed.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether most fans watching a game even notice which apparel logo appears on the uniforms. But big sports apparel companies clearly believe it matters: price tags on long-term collegiate deals have ballooned, and Under Armour, in particular, has recently ramped up its spending on such contracts. In May, it signed UCLA to a 15-year, $280 million deal, blowing Nike’s Ohio State deal out of the water.
Such contracts are likely to keep inflating—a sign that Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas do see huge value on being the logo adorning players in a big bowl game.