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The College Football National Championship Game Is When? How the Wait Widened

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A 16-day gap between the College Football Playoff semifinals and the title game was not exactly by design.
The College Football Playoff has a 16-day layoff between the semifinal games and the national title game. It wasn’t always planned that way.
The College Football Playoff has a 16-day layoff between the semifinal games and the national title game. It wasn’t always planned that way.Credit...Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Kevin DraperAlan Blinder

By Kevin Draper and

  • Published Jan. 7, 2020Updated Jan. 8, 2020, 11:52 a.m. ET

Tens of millions of Americans sat down Monday night to watch the most important game of the college football season: The LendingTree Bowl — formerly known as the Dollar General Bowl, GoDaddy Bowl and the GMAC Bowl — between teams from the Sun Belt and Mid-American conferences.

O.K., O.K., the national championship game is actually next Monday, a full 16 days since Louisiana State and Clemson won their semifinal matchups in the College Football Playoff. The gap between the semifinals and the title game, which will be played in New Orleans, is much longer than it was last year (nine days) or will be next year (10 days).

“It’s probably a little long, but at the same time, you do get rested,” said Archie Manning, the Mississippi football great who has lived in south Louisiana for nearly 50 years. “I’d say it’s a plus to be fresh and rested and scouted and be ready.”

Planning for the matchup next week has been underway for years, but not as currently arranged. The playoff organizers selected New Orleans for this season’s championship game in November 2015. Before New Orleans was chosen, Superdome officials and the local host committee said the stadium was available for Jan. 6 or Jan. 13.

Playoff officials selected the later date, expecting that this season’s semifinals would be played on Dec. 31. They hoped to avoid a gap of less than a week between rounds.

But then came the first edition of New Year’s Eve playoff games, in 2015. Ratings on ESPN, which paid $7.3 billion to televise the College Football Playoff for 12 years, were down 40 percent from the previous semifinals (which were played on Jan. 1, 2015). The network reportedly had to give advertisers $20 million in free advertising to make up for ratings guarantees. Many potential viewers opted to watch year-end specials like the Times Square ball drop or were not watching television at all as they enjoyed fireworks or New Year’s Eve parties instead.

Organizers scrambled the schedule just months after the New Orleans game was set. In the future, playoff officials decided in July 2016, semifinal games would be held on Saturdays or holidays. (The games for the 2021 season will still be played on Dec. 31, a Friday, because the federal government will observe the New Year’s Day holiday on that day.)

“We thought we were doing something special on New Year’s Eve, and it didn’t work out,” said Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director. “Too many people had too many conflicts.”

After the playoff schedule was reset, Hancock said organizers considered moving this season’s title game to Jan. 6, but found that some venues associated with the game, which leaves a vast footprint on its host city, were unavailable because of a conflicting event.

According to New Orleans & Company, the city’s convention and tourism organization, approximately 25,000 people were in town this past weekend for Wizard World, which bills itself as “a traveling pop culture expo for fans of comics, sci-fi, movies, gaming, and more.” No bigger non-sports event will come to New Orleans in the first few months this year.

And changing the day of the week for the championship game — away from its usual Monday night — would have been out of step with the playoff’s tradition, partly forged to not contend with the N.F.L. schedule.

Hancock said he did not fear that the 16-day waiting period would hurt the playoff’s popularity or attention. “There will be plenty of football, there will be plenty of talk about college football,” he said. “We’re not worried about a decline in interest.”

Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, was optimistic that the long gap between games would help the network market the championship game. “We have two full weeks to really design, implement and run a promotional campaign for the championship game,” he said, compared with most years in which ESPN spends months building toward the playoffs only to have “a very short window to promote the crown jewel game.”

ESPN has put together a four-part series — on its streaming platform ESPN+ — on the championship, and the network’s N.F.L. shows will shoot from New Orleans next weekend. “The N.F.L. piece is the biggest challenge,” said Dawson. “The N.F.L. is going to take over that conversation to some extent.”

The long layoff also presented an opportunity for some lesser-known college bowl games, like the LendingTree Bowl, to draw attention. Historically, the college football season ended with games like the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, played on New Year’s Day. But in the mid-2000s, after the establishment of the Bowl Championship Series and a national championship game, games like the GMAC Bowl and the International Bowl began scheduling their games to be held after Jan. 1 in hopes of keeping college football fans engaged as they awaited the championship game.

This year’s lengthy delay helped lead to five bowls being played between New Year’s Day and the championship game.

Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach, said he welcomed this season’s delay, in part because Clemson played its semifinal matchup near Phoenix and had to travel back across the country.

“Hopefully it’ll benefit us, but I’m thankful that we’ve got a couple days to just recover,” he said. “I’d prefer to just go play, to be honest with you, if I was writing the schedule out. But hey, things always happen the way they’re supposed to, and in this particular case, I’m really glad that we’ve got a couple extra days.”

Future seasons include shorter delays between playoff rounds. Next season, for instance, the Rose and Sugar Bowls will host semifinal games on Jan. 1, and the national championship will be held on Jan. 11. At the end of the 2024 season, the next time semifinal games are scheduled for Dec. 28, the title game is set for Jan. 6. Hancock said he regarded a nine-day gap as “ideal” for teams, though he said coaches from both L.S.U. and Clemson had said they were supportive of the timing this season.

“For everything we do, there are multiple audiences,” he said. “And I don’t want to downplay that coaches like this period — although most of them, their attitude is ‘Wherever they tell me to go, I’ll be there’ — but we won’t have this gap again.”

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