I'll admit, I greeted the slate of BCS game this year with more of yawn than anything else. I know I'll be sick of the Alabama-Texas hype by the second week in January, and none of the other games really piqued by interest. It's been that way for a couple of years, actually, ever since I started agitating for a layoff in earnest. But am I alone in this, or is interest in the BCS sloughing off everywhere? I dug up the television rating shares for the BCS era, and spent some time staring at the numbers to see.
Overall, the viewership has been pretty stagnant since about 2002, with the exception of the 2006 Texas-Southern Cal game that was incredibly popular. Interest in the championship game now is about where it was at the turn of the century, when Florida State went to three straight title games. What the viewers have really abandoned is the less popular BCS bowls. When Boise State played Oklahoma in 2007, the game was the least-watched BCS bowl of all time; since then six other bowls performed worse. Of the top fifteen watched bowl games, five were played after 2005 – the four championship games and the Southern Cal-Michigan Rose Bowl. Meanwhile seven of the bottom ten were played in the last three years.
The blame for this shouldn't fall on the non-BCS teams that squeezed their way in to the BCS. Although all five games involving them are in the bottom ten, they barely moved the averages. No, you can lay most of the blame at the feet of the ACC and Big East:
The television ratings for the two conferences peaked with FSU's dominance of 1999-2001 and Miami's championship appearances of '02 and '03; since then both conferences have been well below average. (The ACC's temporary spike in 2006 was again Florida State, playing Penn State in the battle for the retirement home.) Unlike the other conferences who bring in fans year in and year out, when the ACC and Big East submit their two, three, and four loss teams, no one cares.
I don't think the BCS is particularly worried about their ratings. After all, they just got buckets of money from ESPN to air the next three years. They might want to start considering it, however. The least-watched bowl in 2009 pulled almost half the ratings of the worst of 2001; if that sort of trend continues there might not be big sacks of cash waiting around at the next renewal.
(An interesting bit about the Rose Bowl, whose raitings always beat the BCS averages – they might be the ones hurt the most by the state of college football. That first drop in their ratings correspond to the first year the bowl was neither Pac-10 vs. Big 10 or the national championship. Oklahoma played Washington State and drew an 11.3 share. They rebounded the next year with USC-Michigan, but the last two years have been Pac-10 vs. Big 10, (USC and Illinois and Penn State, respectively) and both games pulled the same sort of dismal ratings. The tradition is beginning to dim.)