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Who is going to watch the college football national title game?

The college football season is coming to an end, and the national title game is set. In this blog post, we will look at the data and estimate how many TV viewers will watch the game.

For college football in the United States, the season is concluded by a national title game. A committee of experts selects the top four teams in the country (the validity of that is for a different blog post). These four teams play two semifinal games, and the winners advance to the college football national title game. The college football national title game has been following this format since the 2014-15 season.

In this national title game, we will see the perennial powerhouse the University of Alabama Crimson Tide take on their conference foe University of Georgia Bulldogs. On the surface, this looks like a great matchup pitting the potent Crimson Tide offense against the stout Bulldog defense. Alabama’s offense features Heisman winning quarterback Bryce Young and is third in the country in scoring at 41.4 points per game. Georgia’s defense has allowed the least number of points (9.64) and lowest yards per play (4.1) of any college football team. Sounds like a great matchup on paper — now we want to determine how many people will watch the game. 

First, let's look at the historical viewership for this game. The graph below shows the number of viewers per year for the semifinal and national championship.

Figure 1.jpg

These games are typically one of the most-watched telecasts in the US year in and year out, falling between the 26th most-watched program in 2016 to the fourth most-watched program of 2018. 

How many people are going to watch the game this year? Let’s start with the bad news first. The semifinal games were not very competitive this year and had lower than average ratings. An average of 16.9 million viewers for the two games makes this year the least-watched semifinals since the four-team playoff started. The graph below shows the past semifinal games viewership and how that relates to the championship viewership. If this year’s game follows the same trend as past years, we would expect this championship game to have 22.8 million viewers for the second least-watched championship of all time.

Figure 2.jpg

Another factor that could work against the overall interest in the game is the fact that both teams are from the southeastern conference (SEC), which might lead to less nationwide interest. Also, the game between Alabama and Georgia is a rematch of a game played on Dec. 4, 2021. The map below shows the states where the championship game participants are located as well as the other teams in the conference. As you can see, the 2021-2022 championship game has only 11 states that contain a team in the southeastern conference. That ties the lowest for any national championship game.

Now you might be thinking this will be the least-watched championship game of all time, but there is some good news. This year’s game is very similar to the 2017-2018 national championship game. The 2017-2018 game had Alabama and Georgia, and it was a rematch just like this year. It was also the second most-watched college football championship game, with more than 28.4 million viewers. A large number of viewers for the 2017-2018 game seems to indicate that the regional nature of this game might not be a deterrent for viewership. 

The challenge is to come up with an educated guess for viewership with several competing factors. Also, only seven games have been played in this format, so historical data is very limited. I made a very simple neural network model using conferences and semifinal viewership as factors. You can adjust the factors below to determine which combination of factors will lead to very high or lower viewership. You can also explore -- and share -- this and the visualization above at JMP Public.

The estimate from the model came out to be 24.4 million viewers for this game. This estimate seems reasonable but should be taken with a grain of salt as it is based on a very sparse historical data set. The confidence intervals on this estimate are very wide.

Tune in to watch the championship and see how we did with our estimates.

Last Modified: Dec 19, 2023 3:36 PM