College football teams face competition from NFL for Thursday night audience

ESPN and other networks continue to search for Friday night programming, encouraging some conferences to play on those nights as well.
Jun 6, 2014

 

Admittedly, it was a hard sell for Mike Aresco.

As a television programmer for ESPN back in 1991, Aresco was charged with the unenviable task of finding schools willing to play football on Thursday nights rather than their traditional Saturday time slots. It was a mission dictated by Chuck Neinas and members of the now-defunct College Football Association, who were looking to expand college football’s footprint.

Before the 1990s, college football teams battled for time in the national spotlight on Saturdays.

“We did this deal to start Thursday football on a regular basis,” said Aresco, who is now the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference. “Nobody had done a big-time football schedule and it fell to me at ESPN to put it together.”

So, much like a door-to-door salesman, Aresco reached out to schools gauging their interest in the new venture. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.

“It was a really interesting dynamic, because a lot of schools didn’t want to play on Thursday as you can imagine,” Aresco said. “They preferred Saturdays. Others felt the short week would be an issue, so you have to find bye dates so they could play and not have to worry about a short week (before playing their next game.)”

Aresco eventually convinced enough people the benefits of playing on Thursdays outweighed the risks. Schools from conferences such as the American, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 now have a regular Thursday spot on the network’s schedule.

But Thursday nights are starting to get crowded with the NFL’s decision to schedule more games on the same night. The league’s new deal with CBS has the network regularly broadcasting Thursday night games. The NFL shift begins with the 2014 season opener that features the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks hosting the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 4 and the league keeps taking up Thursday night time slots until mid-December.

It’s a move that could have a major impact on college football viewership.

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Central Florida football fans are getting used to spending their weeknights watching their beloved Knights.

Since 2012, Central Florida has played seven times on Thursday and Friday nights, and the Knights will see more of the same in 2014. It’s part of life as a member of a fledgling conference looking to create brand identity.

It’s a familiar formula to the fans of ACC schools.

“I think the ACC and Thursday night have been a good marriage and it’s been good for our conference,” Miami coach Al Golden said.

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who has coached the Hokies during more than 25 Thursday night showdowns, can see some benefits from the games.

“I like it in the middle of the season,” he said. “You’re the only game on, for the most part. If you can play well, I think it’s a great plus for your program.

“Thursday night in Blacksburg became something special.”

But that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of challenges facing a school hosting a mid-week game. Night classes along with parking issues can cause a strain some administrators aren’t willing to deal with on a regular basis.

“I think it’s situation by situation,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said. “I think if you’re at an institution with parking challenges ... some institutions have a myriad of night classes and some don’t, so it becomes based on the zip code.”

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The Mid-American Conference has loaded up non-traditional early in the week games for six or seven years, according to league commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. As a result, the conference has developed sort of a niche following among fans looking forward to watching college football on Tuesday or Wednesday nights in November. With the surge in popularity of using social media while watching games, fans often post on they are “ready for some MACtion” on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

“It’s certainly raised the visibility of this league,” Steinbrecher said.

It’s also provided the MAC with the opportunity to showcase not only the league, but individual schools such as Northern Illinois, which was ranked nationally the past two seasons. Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate, also gained invaluable national exposure and helped bolster the notoriety of the conference.

“Coaches would say that it’s truly raised the visibility of their programs in this league,” Steinbrecher said. “We’re truly a national league now and they can walk into any national household and there’s good awareness.”

While having a mid-week game on national television seems like a no-brainer, there are some obvious challenges associated with playing a game on a Tuesday night, rather than your typical Saturday.

“Instead of playing in front of 20,000 eyeballs, you’re in front of a million-plus eyeballs because you’re playing on national TV,” Steinbrecher said. “But, there are challenges at the home site.

“You’re asking people to travel. Fans may have to come from significant distances on a week night and can they do that? Is it disruptive to the campus flow? By in large, they’ve hung in there with us.”

Steinbrecher said the MAC will continue to schedule mid-week games for the foreseeable future.

“I think we’ve become a franchise for ESPN on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November,” he said. “Not many people can speak to such a thing, so we believe there is great value in that.”

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ESPN and other networks continue to search for Friday night programming, encouraging some conferences to play on those nights as well. One of the highest-rated games for the American last season was UCF’s come-from-behind win over Louisville on Oct. 18.

“Friday has taken on greater significance now,” Aresco said.

While he embraces Thursday and Friday contests, he said be it’d be challenging to match the MAC playing earlier in week and would almost require both teams to be coming off a bye week.

“It’s tough on fans (to play) on a Wednesday,” he said.

Aresco says that Friday nights are becoming more acceptable nights for football because of the proximity to the weekend and it doesn’t require a team to have a bye week the week beforehand. Most schools that play on Thursday nights typically have a bye week.

Aresco called Thursday and Friday night games are an attractive option for the AAC looking to build its brand.

“We’ve embraced Fridays and Thursdays essentially,” Aresco said.

The AAC has six games scheduled for Thursday night, including two UCF games — against BYU Oct. 9 and at East Carolina Dec. 4. Five of those games will be going head-to-head with NFL’s broadcasts.

The new competition on Thursday night from the NFL has made Friday night football more valuable.

“Friday has become even more important for the college game because it’s essentially unopposed,” said Aresco, who adds that the AAC will play nine Fridays this season.

Along with its two Thursday night games, UCF is playing two Friday night games — versus Tulsa on Nov. 14 and at USF Nov. 28.

“It’s becoming a very important day for us — a showcase day,” said Aresco.

Some schools, however, are resistant to playing on Friday nights because it interferes with a heavily-populated high school football schedule. Coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference and in other leagues prefer the option to watch recruits on those nights.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a great number of Friday games,” White said when asked about playing on Friday nights.

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While the NFL’s additional Thursday night games don’t seem to be a huge concern, it still caught the attention of college leaders.

“We’ve not had a bunch of discussions (amid the 10 FBS conferences),” Steinbrecher said. “I expect somewhere down the road we will.

“The NFL is kind of the 1,000-pound gorilla. I think we’ll have to pay attention.”

Debbie Yow, athletic director at NC State, said it’s clear the weekday football marketplace is getting “crowded.”

Aresco, who first had to coax schools to play college football games on Thursday nights, doesn’t expect them to stop playing on those dates because of the NFL.

“Clearly what the NFL is doing on Thursdays will have a big impact on it,” Aresco said. “But that doesn’t mean the colleges won’t continue to play Thursdays.

“There are college football fans who are going to watch it and it’s still an opportunity to play on a night when you are the only college game. So, that’s a real value.”

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