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North Dakota State senior defensive lineman Stanley Jones celebrates the Bison's national championship Saturday, Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, as head coach Chris Klieman holds the title trophy aloft.

McFeely: TV ratings drop for Bison title game

FARGO - Before we get to the details, national television viewership numbers for Bison football games need to be kept in perspective. Since North Dakota State began its dynasty in 2011, more people around the United States have watched Bison football games than ever before.

This is mostly because ESPN and its family of platforms carry Football Championship Subdivision playoff games as part of its deal with the NCAA (all based on the mega-profitable men's basketball tournament). So, since moving up to Division I and starting the FCS train rolling, NDSU gets infinitely more national television exposure than it did during its Division II dynasty days.

Here's an anecdote to illustrate the point.

When NDSU played Indiana University of Pennsylvania for the 1990 Division II title in Florence, Ala., WDAY-TV and WDAZ-TV — owned by Forum Communications and the Bison broadcast rights holder at the time — purchased the rights from ESPN to televise the game locally. Ed Schultz was the WDAY sports director. He pursued that avenue because ESPN was going to tape-delay the game until 11 a.m. the next Monday.

According to a Forum story, ESPN televised the Division II title game live as long as the game kicked off at 10 a.m. Central (11 a.m. Eastern). Division II coaches voted against the early start and the NDSU-IUP game was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Central. So the game was shown live locally on WDAY-WDAZ, called by Schultz and Dana Mogck with a 12:30 p.m. local pregame show, while ESPN played the contest on tape delay two days later. ESPN's broadcasters were Sean McDonough and Neil Lomax.

The Bison won 51-11 for their eighth national title, but last until 2011.

All of that said, NDSU title game viewership numbers Saturday dropped to their lowest level since the school moved to Division I.

NDSU's seventh national championship in eight seasons attracted the fewest viewers of its historic run, according to Nielsen ratings released Tuesday. The Bison's 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington attracted an estimated average of 1.004 million viewers on ESPN2.

The web site listed full week sports ratings for Dec. 31, 2018 through Jan. 6, 2019. The Bison-Eastern Washington game drew a 0.64 percent rating, meaning then that less than 1 percent of all TVs in the U.S. were tuned to the game. Among the key demographic of Adults 18-49, an estimated 278,000 people watched.

The FCS championship game was the lowest-rated regular college football telecast of the week. The Rose Bowl MegaCast shown on ESPN2, a mosaic-style presentation of the game using multiple cameras, drew an average of 607,000 viewers. The Sugar Bowl MegaCast on ESPN2 had 327,000.

The next lowest viewed college football game last week was the Holiday Bowl between Utah and Northwestern on Fox Sports 1, which drew an estimated average audience of 1.787 million.

By comparison, the highest-rated college game was the Rose Bowl between Washington and Ohio State, shown on ESPN. It drew an average audience of 16.175 million. The most-watched sports program of the week was the NFL playoff game between Philadelphia and Chicago on NBC, which attracted an average of 35.890 million viewers.

According to available data, viewership mostly grew for the title games involving the Bison since their run began in 2011.

NDSU's victory over James Madison in January 2018 drew an average of 1.515 million viewers, the Bison's highest-rated championship game.

Other Bison title game viewership numbers include: 1.35 million vs. Jacksonville State in January 2016; 1.44 million vs. Illinois State in January 2015; 1.2 million vs. Towson in January 2014; and 1.1 million vs. Sam Houston State in January 2013.

No figures were available for NDSU's first championship, which came against Sam Houston State in January 2012.

The Bison's quarterfinal playoff game this season against Colgate, carried by ESPN, drew an average of 1.806 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That would make it the second-highest rated NDSU game. The tops was NDSU's quarterfinal game against South Dakota State in 2016, which averaged 1.984 million viewers on ESPN.

This season's semifinal game against SDSU, on ESPN2, averaged 846,000 viewers.

ESPN games often attract more viewers than ESPN2 because the flagship is carried in more homes.

Here are some TV numbers from Nielsen for Bison games over the years, via

YearGameGame typeAverage viewers
Dec. 2016NDSU vs. South Dakota StateFCS quarters1.984 million
Dec. 2018NDSU.vs. ColgateFCS quarters1.806 million
Jan. 2018NDSU vs. James MadisonFCS title1.515 million
Jan. 2016NDSU vs. Jacksonville St.FCS title1.35 million
Jan. 2015NDSU vs. Illinois StateFCS title1.44 million
Jan. 2013NDSU vs. Sam Houston St.FCS title1.1 million
Aug. 2015NDSU vs. MontanaFCS Kickoff981,000
Dec. 2017NDSU vs. WoffordFCS quarters849,000
Dec. 2018NDSU vs. South Dakota StateFCS semis846,000
Aug. 2016NDSU vs. Charleston So.FCS Kickoff797,000
Dec. 2017NDSU vs. Sam Houston St.FCS semis604,000
Aug. 2013NDSU vs. Kansas StateSeason opener585,000