The bottom line seems to be this: Nobody watches the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony anymore.
Or, at least, that’s what the numbers indicate.
ESPN draws second consecutive record-low overnight rating for Heisman ceremony. Little drama this year, again, as Baker Mayfield was heavy favorite. 1.5 rating is down 12% from last year.
— Austin Karp (@AustinKarp) December 11, 2017
If you want to get really technical about it, the Heisman drew a 3.6 rating in 2009. It had a 3.1 in 2012, when people first started realizing that the ceremony was hardly appointment television anymore. It hasn’t been above 2.0 since, and with a 1.5 this year, that means it has lost more than half of its viewers in the last five years.
Indeed, viewers are telling the Heisman ceremony to talk to the hand (sorry, couldn’t resist) in stunning droves.
Everyone is going to have their own opinion as to why this is the case, and honestly, everybody is going to be right — because whatever reason you aren’t watching the ceremony anymore is the right one. Many are going to blame ESPN’s “oversaturation” of the Heisman market during the regular season making the winner almost a foregone conclusion, but that sounds a lot like a cop out because the winner has always been somewhat of a foregone conclusion. Others will blame social media, insisting that nobody wants to watch an hour-and-a-half-long program to see who the winner of an award will be when they can just check Twitter in 85 minutes to learn who did. But the ceremony has never been about the winner. it has been about the candidates and the schools.
The troubling thing for the Heisman committee and ESPN is, the mass exodus of viewers is an indication that not enough people care about the candidates anymore.
This probably isn’t going to be a popular stance, but it’s my take, and guaranteed, the Heisman and the NCAA and ESPN are going to at some point debate its merits. Because in police work, they follow the money. And when it comes to television ratings, they always follow the interest:
The Heisman Trophy is kind of morphing into a very regional award.
Of the last 11 Heisman Trophies, 10 have gone to players who played their college ball in states you’d consider part of the south: Tim Tebow (Florida), Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), Mark Ingram (Alabama), Cam Newton (Auburn), Robert Griffin III (Baylor), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Jamies Winston (Florida State), Derrick Henry (Alabama), Lamar Jackson (Louisville) and Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma). The only one who didn’t is Oregon QB Marcus Mariota in 2014, and as far as ratings go, he was a bad combination of being both a runaway winner and from a school that doesn’t have broad national appeal.
Of the last 32 finalists, 18 have been from the south. Oklahoma players have taken up three finalist spots in the last two years. Stanford, a great school with a fine football program that doesn’t move the needle much nationally, has somehow had five finalists in the last nine years.
So much for the East Coast bias, huh? The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states have had one — ONE — finalists since 2003, and that was Boston College’s Andre Williams in 2013.
This is why I was sort of surprised last week when the Heisman committee didn’t invite Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to the ceremony. Sure, he finished a distant fourth, and the committee knew that when they made their invitations. But Penn State is a school with some national appeal, and Barkley is a player NFL fans who don’t watch Penn State play every week will want to know more about. He’d have been a good guy to have around if only for the production of the show, and almost assuredly, he’d have brought in better ratings than what the ceremony got. Because unlike Baker Mayfield or Bryce Love or Lamar Jackson…people in really big cities actually care about Saquon Barkley.
I know that’s probably crude to suggest. But, it’s true. Baseball fans gripe all the time about how often ESPN puts the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers on television more often than other teams. Well, it’s because the ratings are better when they put those teams on television. Newsflash: More people live in big cities than in small ones. Many more. And that’s what drives ratings, people caring enough to tune into a telecast.
I’ve been to Louisville. It’s a nice city, and I’m sure Lamar Jackson is a really big deal there. But I’m just as sure that Lamar Jackson can walk down Broad Street in Philadelphia, wearing his Louisville jersey, and nobody is going to stop and ask him what it was like to win the Heisman. I’m not so sure Barkley could walk down the street in Philly at least without some fans asking him if he thought the Heisman committee was crazy for not inviting him to the ceremony.
College football thrives on being a largely regional sport, but there are teams that have broad national appeal — and those teams have been thoroughly underrepresented at the ceremony in the last decade. The last time Ohio State had a player invited: In 2006, when Troy Smith won. Notre Dame has had one player invited in the last decade (Manti Te’o). Texas hasn’t had one since Colt McCoy in 2009. USC hasn’t had one since 2005 (Reggie Bush). Unbelievably, Miami hasn’t had one since Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee went in 2002. Same with Penn State, whose last Heisman finalists was Larry Johnson in 2002.
The five most-populated cities in the nation are New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia, and those are the schools that are — arguably, but only slightly — the biggest draw in those cities. That doesn’t tell the whole ratings story, but it tells a big one.
Surely, social media will debate the Heisman ratings slide and come up with a million reasons why it’s happening. But it’s like anything else in entertainment, really. If you don’t give a broad spectrum of people a reason to care, then why should they care? The Heisman Trophy is a bigger deal in places like Norman and Palo Alto and Louisville and the Florida panhandle than it is in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. The longer it stays that way, the more these ratings are going to fall.