TAMPA, Fla. — Sports fans have gotten accustomed over the decades to the idea that television usually gets what it wants, because television writes the biggest checks.
But Thursday will provide a rare example of a television entity — in this case the most powerful one in sports — forced to make the best of a situation it sought to avoid.
ESPN strongly preferred for this season to have the College Football Playoff semifinals played on Saturday — an off day for most working people and an off day for the NFL.
Oh, and a night on which people are not otherwise occupied celebrating a holiday that traditionally involves leaving one’s house and not watching televised football games.
But in this case the Worldwide Leader did not get what it wanted, because the CFP had previously determined that New Year’s Eve is an unexploited branding opportunity that can be something akin to the NFL on Thanksgiving and the NBA on Christmas.
As CFP executive director Bill Hancock told SI.com in July, “We really do think we’re going to change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve.” (He has uttered variations of that cheesy quote in other interviews.)
Hancock’s prior job was running the BCS and arguing against a college football playoff, but now he is in charge of that playoff system, which proved popular in its inaugural season.
Last year’s semis were played on Jan. 1, mostly because it was the Rose Bowl’s turn to host one and the Rose Bowl doesn’t do New Year’s Eve. But this year and next the semis will be held on that night, then again in 2018 and ’19.
The difference between New Year’s Eve and, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas, is that those holidays are official federal holidays, and they often involve people staying home with family and friends rather than going out into the night for assorted revelry.
ESPN knew about the New Year’s Eve idea when it agreed to give the CFP $5.6 billion over 12 years, but it also knew there was a chance for better ratings — and fewer intrafamily feuds — if it moved this year’s semis to Jan. 2.
But 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. it is, with ESPN crossing its fingers the whole thing ends before midnight Eastern Time, at which time people are supposed to be watching a lighted ball on ABC, not an oblong one on ESPN.
The tricky part about assessing the ratings will be that the only thing we have to compare them to are those from last year’s semis. Most likely, they will be plenty big — bigger than any non-championship event in North America outside the NFL.
But we never will know how much bigger they might have been two nights later.
Thursday’s CFP semifinals
No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 Clemson
ESPN, 4 p.m.
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Alabama
ESPN, 8 p.m.