According to Nielsen, the SEC was far and away the most watched conference in college football last fall.
The league averaged a shade under 4.5 million viewers per telecast. That figure was about 1.2 million more than the next-highest conference, the Big Ten with almost 3.3 million per telecast. Believe it or not, the third-highest conference was the ACC with 2.65 million viewers per telecast. The Big 12 was fourth with 2.3 million per telecast, the Pac-12 was fifth with 2.1 million per telecast, and the Big East was sixth with 1.9 million per telecast.
A theme should be apparent: the top three conferences have almost all of their big games on ESPN/ABC. The sole exception is the SEC with its weekly feature game guaranteed to appear in every household with a TV in the country on CBS. The SEC's game of the week never has to suffer lower ratings from being put in regional coverage. The Big 12 and Pac-12 have a lot of second tier games on the Fox Sports Net channels and the Pac-12 had some on Versus, both of which which have far less carriage than ESPN and ESPN2.
The Pac-12's monster contract seems preposterous in light of these numbers, but keep in mind that its old TV deal is universally considered the worst among all the major conferences. It also had some advantages unrelated to its overall attractiveness as a TV property that other leagues didn't. I expect to see the numbers for that league move up with its new, far better deal. I don't expect to see it approach SEC viewership though, which is why I think Mike Slive will broker a mammoth deal when his league's contract is reopened in light of conference expansion. The Nielsen report highlights that the first Alabama-LSU game scored 20 million viewers, while the second was by far the most-watched BCS game with 24 million viewers.
The report also includes basketball, and the SEC fares better there than you'd think. The Big Ten was actually the ratings leader last year for January-March 13 (pre-NCAA tournament) with about 1.5 million viewers per game. The vaunted ACC was second with 1.25 million, while the SEC came in just behind with 1.22 million per game. Everyone focuses on the football aspect of the SEC's deal with ESPN, but it includes wide carriage of the other big sports like basketball and baseball. I don't know where to begin to find baseball ratings numbers, but the fact that the league almost matches the ACC in basketball shows that the deal is great for the hoops side of things.
Finally, the report goes over some ad spending stats for football and basketball from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The overall winner is March Madness, which has had ad spending of over $700 million and saw ad spending of over $1 billion for the 2011 tournament. College football's regular season is next at around $570 million for 2007-09 and $604 million for 2010. The college basketball regular season comes in third in the $265-$295 range.
Football's bowl season came in last, but the trend is the most interesting thing about it. From the 2007-08 bowls to the 2009-10 bowls, ad spending rose from $309.6 million to $339.9 million to $373.1 million. In the 2010-11 bowl season, ad spending crashed to $182.5 million. The bad economy probably has a lot to do with that, but ad spending for everything else ticked up noticeably in 2011. My completely speculative conjecture is that advertisers chose to pull money out of bowl season and spend it during the basketball tournament.
Whatever the case, I can't help but think that decreased ad spending is in part linked to decreased interest in bowl season. No one cares when, for instance, 6-7 UCLA and 6-6 Illinois face off after both fired their coaches. Plenty of bowl matchups each year fail to move the proverbial needle. That's why I think college football is likely to make moves to revamp its postseason by introducing a four-team playoff and raising the bowl eligibility bar to seven wins from six. The latter is a repudiation of more-is-better philosophy and is really the only glimmer of hope that college football's power brokers will ever be able to stave off bracket creep.