When the Trojans play, all eyes are on them.
The above sentence, and the research that went into concluding it, ends all debate over which school is the biggest draw during bowl season. A recent Wall Street Journal study looked at the television viewership numbers for every major bowl game since 1998. WSJ then ranked each school–those in major BCS conferences plus Notre Dame–based on whether it exceeded or fell short of its bowls’ average audience size. And the winners were…
- USC Trojans
- Florida State Seminoles
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish
- Miami Hurricanes
- Michigan Wolverines
I attribute the viewership dominance to several things. First, USC has an extremely loyal fan base anchored by its strong alumni network. Having graduated from USC, I have a huge attachment to my school, its football program, and the festivities surrounding game day. And having been to so many football games and met so many alums on those days, I can say without a doubt that the whole Trojan Family feels the same way. When USC plays at home, a huge portion of the audience is alumni; sure, the pessimist will look at that and think the alumni simply paid their way for all of those seats. You’re right, they did. But the fact of the matter is that alums have the desire to go back to campus and the Coliseum to support the school and the team. Simply put, the Trojan spirit doesn’t weaken after one’s commencement ceremony; it gets stronger.
The second reason why USC is such a big draw is because they play in a huge market. Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the country based on population size (behind New York City, which does not have a major college football team). If you add those 3.8+ million pairs of eligible eyeballs the dozens upon dozens of neighboring cities (San Diego, Anaheim, etc.) and suburbs, suddenly you have an enormous pool from which you can try to attract viewers. And sure, you could make the argument that USC has to “split” viewership with nearby UCLA, but when it comes to football, UCLA has never been a big-time program (let’s be honest).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, USC always gets up for big games on big stages, and this makes a viewer’s time investment worthwhile. Nobody wants to sit down for a greatly-hyped bowl game and watch two teams play sloppy, listless football. In other words, nobody wants to watch a dud. When USC takes the field in a bowl game, they pretty much guarantee you a strong performance.
Since 2002-2003 (the beginning of the Pete Carroll Era), here is how USC has played in their bowl games:
- 02-03 Orange Bowl: USC 38, Iowa 17. The Trojans outscored the Hawkeyes 31-7 after the first quarter. USC also amassed 550 total yards of offense, including 303 yards passing by the game’s MVP and eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Carson Palmer.
- 03-04 Rose Bowl: USC 28, Michigan 14. The Trojans raced out to a 21-0 lead and never looked back. Matt Leinart led the Trojans with 327 pass yards and 3 touchdowns. Wide receiver Keary Colbert burned the Wolverines for 6 catches, 149 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
- 04-05 Orange Bowl: USC 55, Oklahoma 19. In a game that was supposed to be a showdown of two undefeated juggernauts, both of which featured a Heisman Trophy winner (Leinart for USC, Jason White for Oklahoma), the Trojans slaughtered the Sooners. Matt Leinart set Orange Bowl game records for most passing touchdowns (5); Steve Smith set a game record for most receiving touchdowns (3); and the Trojans’ 55 points was also a game record.
- 05-06 Rose Bowl: Texas 41, USC 38. The only bowl game that got away from the Trojans. You all know the story. It took a superhuman performance by Vince Young to take down the Men of Troy. Regardless of the outcome, the Trojans and Longhorns gave fans what they asked for: a back-and-forth slugfest between two of the best teams in the history of college football. It is unanimously regarded as the game of the decade and one of the best of all time.
- 06-07 Rose Bowl: USC 32, Michigan 18. The Trojans led 19-3 after three quarters and Michigan never stood a chance. John David Booty threw for 391 yards and 4 touchdowns and Dwayne Jarrett caught 11 passes for 205 yards and 2 touchdowns.
- 07-08 Rose Bowl: USC 49, Illinois 17. I was in attendance for this beautiful beat down. The media thought the Illini’s athletic trio of Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, and Arrelious Benn would give the Trojans fits. Instead, it was the Trojans offense that exploded and sent Illinois home with nightmares. USC set a Rose Bowl record for total yards with a whopping 633.
- 08-09 Rose Bowl: USC 38, Penn State 24. I was at this game, too. USC blasted the Nittany Lions en route to a 31-7 halftime advantage. Quarterback Mark Sanchez became the only quarterback in college football history to complete 80% of his pass attempts in a Rose Bowl game, and he became only the third QB in history to throw for over 400 yards (413) in a Rose Bowl game.
- 09-10 Emerald Bowl: USC 24, Boston College 13. The least impressive of USC’s bowl performances this decade was still a solid one by most standards. Matt Barkley, only a freshman at the time, threw for 350 yards and receiver Damian Williams caught 12 passes for 189 yards.
Ultimately, those mini game recaps demonstrate the following: college football fans (most of them, anyway) are smart and if you consistently get invited to big bowl games and lay duds, then they will take note and refuse to tune in the next time you play on a big stage (that means you, Buckeyes, who dropped three straight bowl games, including two national championships, before righting the ship last year against Oregon). But if you accept a bowl invitation, spend a solid month preparing for your opponent, and then step on the field and deliver a passionate, energized, and sharp performance, fans will also remember that and make a note to watch your next big game. And that’s how USC gets viewers to come back.
If you’d like to read more about the WSJ study, click here.