By almost any metric, the first College Football Playoff will be viewed as a success.
While the national championship game has yet to be played, the semifinal round had everything fans could ask for -- marquee teams, star players and no shortage of drama.
Thanks to these factors the two semifinal games, Florida State-Oregon and Alabama-Ohio State, became the most viewed events in cable TV history. The Rose Bowl averaged 28.16 million viewers while the Sugar Bowl topped that, drawing an average of 28.27 million viewers.
The only non-NFL sporting event of 2014 to earn more viewers than the semifinal games was the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics (31.7 million).
"These record-setting numbers illustrate the enormous fan interest in college football and the wide-ranging appeal of the new College Football Playoff format," said ESPN executive VP for programming and production John Wildhack. "We are excited to build upon this success when we showcase the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship on ESPN on January 12."
Only four BCS national championship games drew higher audiences than this year's semifinals: USC-Texas in 2006 (35.6 million), Alabama-Texas in 2010 (30.8 million), Ohio State-Miami in 2003 (29.1 million) and Florida-Ohio State in 2007 (28.8 million).
This year's semifinal games featured four large schools with widespread fanbases, the past two Heisman Trophy winners (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) and three coaches who have won national championships in the past decade. All told, it led to a spectacular return on investment for ESPN, which paid $7.3 billion for the right to broadcast the College Football Playoff the next 12 years.
This new format may have cost other games, however, as the Orange Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl both recorded drops in ratings. The Orange Bowl fell from 11.4 million for Clemson-Ohio State in 2014 to 8.9 million this year for Georgia Tech-Mississippi State. The Fiesta Bowl's audience of 7.4 million for Boise State-Arizona was, according to the New York Times, its lowest Nielsen rating ever.
At least one expert, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, thinks the increased intrigue may result in a new title game record. Sandomir predicts the championship game will draw 45 million viewers, which is slightly less than the average for an NFL conference championship.