The College Football Playoff semifinals are staying on New Year's Eve — despite last season's television ratings — but the schedule is getting a tweak.
The Dec. 31 semifinals will start an hour earlier than they did last season and the Orange Bowl will now be played in prime time on Friday, Dec. 30, instead of during the day on Dec. 31.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said Monday that coverage of the first game on ESPN will start at 3 p.m. Eastern. The second game will start at 7 p.m. ET. The semifinals will be played in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. Which game starts first will be determined on Dec. 4, when the semifinal matchups are set.
Last season was the first that the semifinals were played on New Year's Eve and the television ratings were down about 35 percent for the two games compared to the season before, when both were played on Jan. 1. That debut season of the College Football Playoff drew record audiences for ESPN.
The Orange Bowl last season between Clemson and Oklahoma, which kicked off about 4:10 p.m. EST on ESPN, drew a 9.1 television rating, a 38.5 percent drop compared to the previous year's Rose Bowl semifinal (14.8). The number of viewers dropped 44.5 percent from 28.2 million for the Rose to 15.6 million for the Orange.
The Michigan State-Alabama Cotton Bowl drew a 9.6 rating for ESPN compared to 15.2 for Ohio State-Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015 — a 36.8 percent drop. Total viewership crashed 34.4 percent, going from 28,271,000 for the first season of the playoff to 18,552,000 in the second.
College Football Playoff officials broke from the original plan by moving the Orange Bowl off New Year's Eve. The initial schedule for the CFP had two tripleheaders scheduled for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day throughout the 12-year contract with ESPN. That would have given a late-morning kickoff to the Orange Bowl, which has traditionally been played at night.
After the 2017 season, the semifinals will move back to the Sugar and Rose bowls on New Year's Day.
"As we committed earlier this year, we have looked at the landscape for the upcoming season and are confident that this change will make it easier for more fans to watch the games on television and also will benefit fans who will attend the games in person," Hancock said. "The semifinals will be played on Saturday for the first time. The Capital One Orange Bowl will be in an evening time slot, which is its tradition."
The other three marquee bowls that are part of the playoff rotation — Cotton, Rose and Sugar — will be played Monday, Jan. 2, as previously scheduled, because Jan. 1 will fall on an Sunday dominated by NFL games.