College football used to be reserved for Saturdays. For the most part, the overwhelming majority of programs still play their games on Saturday. But over the past few years, many programs and conferences have moved games to earlier in the week. This is particularly true of what many would call “mid-major” or “lower-tier” FBS programs.
With increasing awareness and viewership of these programs and their weeknight games, is it time to ask if the more of the big-name college football programs should play on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday night?
We first need to figure out why teams from the MAC, Sun Belt and Pac-12 are opting for weeknight games. We'll look at the advantages and disadvantages and try to apply them to programs like Michigan, Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Texas.
Would it make sense to watch Michigan play Notre Dame on Thursday night? What are the benefits to Alabama-LSU on Friday?
College football, like NFL games, used to be played on one particular day each week.
Saturdays across America were reserved for college football, and we would block out the day each week to catch our alma mater or favorite teams play.
With networks like ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS Sports—and even conference channels like the Big Ten Network—proliferating across the country, there's now more access to college football than ever before.
Still, with 125 teams taking the field in the FBS in 2013, there's only so much time in a day.
Even if you happened to be a Toledo Rockets fan living in Ohio, chances are you would decide to watch Ohio State play Purdue than Toledo play, well, anyone. The television networks know this, and so Toledo gets relegated to webcasts and local radio while Ohio State is featured on ABC or ESPN.
The MAC, and other conferences like it, figured out that moving a game to Thursday night would open up the airwaves, allow its teams to find an audience that might otherwise have other games to watch.
Thus, weeknight college football was born.
Playing college football on a night other than Saturday has some distinct advantages.
First, teams like Arkansas State get some prime time ESPN coverage—something that would never happen on a Saturday night in the midst of SEC country.
Not only does Arkansas State get its brand flashed across ESPN for a few hours, but ESPN gives up the obligatory ad space for the university to tout its school to would-be applicants.
ESPN is happy because college football fans, even if they don't give two hoots about the Red Wolves, will at least have something to watch beyond their endless droning of analysts talking about a game that's still a couple of days away.
Viewership goes up for Arkansas State, viewership goes up for ESPN—or whatever network is showing the game—and everyone comes out on top.
What could possibly be the downside?
Sure, Tulsa might get more viewers on a Thursday night that it would otherwise see if it played on Saturday and was relegated to a local broadcast. But we're still talking about a Thursday night game.
It's nice to come home from a long day of work, settle into an arm chair and turn on the game. But for many people, that's not always convenient.
The kids have school work, soccer practice and a plethora of other events, the dishes need to be done, the laundry sorted, and this is all before even thinking about getting up tomorrow to do it all again.
The point is that a weeknight is not always the most convenient or relaxing time for a football fan to take two-and-a-half hours out of their day to catch a game.
On top of that, while we see an increase in television ratings both for the network at a given time slot and the teams playing in the game, the number of viewers pales in comparison to any game on Saturday.
The Pac-12 is one of the few major conferences that hasn't shied away from weeknight football.
In 2013, some of the conference's biggest matchups will be played during the week, such as Oregon at Stanford on Thursday, November 7. There's also Arizona at USC on Thursday, October 10, USC at Oregon State on Friday, November 1 and USC at Oregon on Friday, November 29.
So if the Pac-12 is doing it, why can't the SEC or Big Ten?
The Pac-12 is a unique case in college football. For as long as anyone can remember, the fans in the Pac-12—and more than a few coaches and players—have complained about an “east coast bias” when it comes to college football, particularly when dealing with All-American lists and individual awards like the Heisman Trophy.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who's to blame for that. The Pac-12, like so many other conferences, likes night games.
There's something magical about college football under the lights, and it makes for some really great prime time TV.
The problem is, prime time in Los Angeles is the middle of the night in Boston, Miami, New York, Columbus, Ann Arbor and many other big cities and college football towns.
A 7:30 p.m. kickoff in the Pacific Time Zone is a 10:30 pm kickoff in the east. With some games stretching to three hours, it's getting close to 2:00 a.m. when the game concludes.
Many fans have either gone to bed or hit the local adult beverage establishments by then—and that includes sports reporters.
To try and gain a little more attention out east, the Pac-12 has moved some games to earlier in the week. We think a noon or 3:30 pm kickoff—a commonplace occurrence in the east—would also do the trick, too, but the conference powers have made their decision.
Even so, we still have to wonder about the potential impact.
Remember last season's upset of Stanford by Washington in late September? The only reason that didn't get more play nationally was because it was on a Thursday night.
By the time Saturday rolled around, there were dozens of other storylines that needed to be covered, and were fresher than the two-day-old story of the Huskies defeat of the Cardinal.
The Pac-12 is moving some games—even some big ones—to weeknights, why shouldn't the Big Ten and SEC follow suit?
First, neither of those two eastern conferences need the extra exposure. From noon (in the east) until 11:00 pm or later, the television lineup is packed full of Big Ten and SEC football.
Nearly every game in those conferences is broadcast every week, and ratings have never been better.
Second, there just seems something unholy about watching Alabama and LSU or Michigan and Notre Dame play on a Thursday night. We can't quite put our finger on it, but something just seems wrong.
None of the programs really need the exposure, except maybe Northwestern or Vanderbilt.
Stadiums are full, ratings are up and college football is as popular today as it has ever been. Why tinker with what's working?
Plus, if teams like Alabama began moving their games to Thursday night, we're back to square one. Who would you rather watch on Thursday: Alabama or Florida International?
The entire point of weeknight games is to increase exposure for mid-major or western teams that sometimes get lost in the shuffle of the 60-or-so games on Saturday.
In the end, every program has to ask itself what the benefit is to playing on any day of the week other than Saturday. For most, we don't believe there is a benefit. People are going to pay attention to Alabama whether the Tide play on Saturday on not.
Televisions will show Notre Dame any time the Irish take the field. So for these marquee programs, where's the benefit?
Not only is there no extra benefit to playing on a weeknight, in fact there may be negative consequences.
First, fewer people might actually be available to watch on any given weeknight. Additionally, the whole point of playing during the week is lessened, and ultimately defeated as more and more top programs move their games away from Saturday.
The MAC, the Sun Belt, Conference USA, even the Pac-12 have all decided to move games from Saturday to avoid being overrun by the big name programs in prime time. If LSU and Ohio State start playing on those weeknights, the mid-majors and the Pac-12 might as well move their games back to Saturday.
There's no overwhelming objection to having Western Michigan play Massachusetts on Thursday night, but let those programs have their day of glory.
The rest of the nation can and will continue to watch the power conferences play on Saturday.
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