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How Do We Measure BCS Ratings? Let Me Count the Ways

Thursday, January 7, 2010 , Posted by Christopher Byrne at 11:16 AM, under , ,

When networks issue their customary press releases concerning the Nielsen ratings for their coverage of a particular event, you will almost always find a positive when their is negative or neutral news. For example, FOX Sports issued news yesterday about the ratings for the three Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games they broadcast in this last year of their contract. There was good news and so-so news. And it all begs the question: is there a reasonable and fair way to measure ratings between bowl games from year to year that really has any validity?

Let's start with a release from a couple of days ago. In this release, FOX said proudly that the 2010 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl showed a 5% gain over last year. That was the headline. The subheadline said that ratings for the BCS on Fox were up 29% over 2009. At face value, it would be easy to look at these and say "Wow, the Fiesta Bowl game between TCU and Boise State did better than last year's game between Texas and Ohio State!"

That would be pretty impressive if true. But the 5% increase was not a comparison between this year's Fiesta Bowl and last year's game. It was comparing this year's game with last year's Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Utah. Why? According to a spokesman for FOX Sports, this is because these were the BCS games played in the number two slot of the bowl rotation. That way they could keep the comparisons between similar match-ups, not the bowl games themselves.

It is not until you get to the end of the lead paragraph that you find out that the ratings for this year's game were down 21% from last year's game.

OK, so let's go ahead and buy that rationale. Yesterday, FOX issued a press release for the 2010 Orange Bowl. But the order of comparison was changed. This time they led with a comparison between this year's game and last year's game, focusing on a 26% increase in the ratings. Why? Because if they focused on a bowl rotation slot comparison, they would had to lead off talking about a 35% drop from last year's 3rd position game: the Fiesta Bowl.

Then the overall 2010 BCS ratings picture changed. Remember that earlier we wrote that just a couple of days ago. FOX reported that overall rating's were up 29% over last year?

That changed with yesterday's press release, which had the good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that FOX experienced a 1% overall AVERAGE audience growth from last year. The bad news (really the so-so news)? The overall average ratings stayed flat. So good-bye to the 29% increase that was reported a couple of days ago.

Was FOX trying some smoke and mirrors tricks? No, they were doing their job to paint the picture as brightly as they can for the company image. This is no different than any other network or organization.

But it does mean that, if you did not know this already, you have to take any network-issued ratings-related press releases with a grain of salt. There are just too many things that factor into the numbers, including the changing rotation of games from year to year and the party-crashing by non-BCS schools like Utah, Boise State, and TCU.

But here is what we do know.

1.  Unless the BCS Bowls change their ways of selecting teams, we will almost always certainly get an ACC team (or worse a Big East team) in the Orange Bowl, and people will just not care as much as they would watching a Texas - Ohio State match up. If the Orange Bowl ratings did not improve over last year's game between two teams nobody cared about (Virginia Tech and Cincinnati), one of which we now know has no clothes (that would be Cincinnati), then something would be way out of balance in the college football world.

2. As long as the games beat what is airing on the other major over-the-air networks, the actual numbers do not really mean a thing.

3. Who knows what the numbers will look like next year with the BCS games moving to ESPN.

All we can ask whatever network is airing the games is too give us a watchable product so we do not wince and twist in pain trying to watch the games.

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