College football’s opening weekend is upon us, and it’s staying with us for two nights that traditionally belong to the NFL: Sunday and Monday.
Sunday will bring two attractive Power 5 games: West Virginia-Virginia Tech and Texas A&M-UCLA. (And last Sunday had an FCS game on ESPNU, Richmond-Sam Houston State.) Labor Day will close Week 1 with a Tennessee-Georgia Tech meeting in Atlanta.
1. It’s about cramming before the NFL season.
College football is a popular sport, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the national penetration the NFL has. Its biggest fan bases are spread throughout all sorts of areas, but the NFL has a team (or two) in all of the country’s biggest media markets. The NCAA and its schools have money, but NFL owners have money, and they use it to make their league the most ubiquitous thing in the American sports landscape.
The NFL’s regular season starts the weekend after Labor Day, and college’s starts the week before. That’s always been by design, as a chance for the schools and the kids to have a few minutes with the spotlight. Spreading out the slate from Thursday to Monday is just an extension of that point. The colleges get to hold attention for longer.
It’s similar to how the NFL schedule spreads into Saturday, once college football is done.
2. TV networks love having games every night.
Live sports are the most DVR- and Netflix-proof thing a TV channel can offer. People will still turn on games on their TVs and watch them live, boosting ratings and putting money straight into the networks’ pockets. But the thing about college football is that it’s massive, with 130 teams in the FBS alone.
When college football is confined to Saturdays, the best real estate gets occupied quickly. ESPN and ABC can only broadcast one ultra-mega-primetime game per night. CBS’ main channel does one per Saturday, which it uses on its its SEC game of the week. But what about all the other games that could’ve been huge?
That’s why it’s great to spread them out. This week, we’ll have:
- Thursday: Ohio State at Indiana and a few oddball games
- Friday: Mostly so-so games, but Colorado-Colorado State should be good
- Saturday: Alabama-FSU, Michigan-Florida, and a bunch more
- Sunday: Texas A&M-UCLA and West Virginia-Virginia Tech
- Monday: Tennessee-Georgia Tech
Those games are spread around between ESPN, ABC, and FOX. Each will be the most appealing game of the night or close to it. If they were all on Saturday, they’d have to share America’s eyeballs. Only Bama-FSU and one other game would really get viewership. With Sunday and Monday in play, broadcasters avoid that problem.
Remember how big 2016’s Notre Dame-Texas game on Sunday night and Florida State-Ole Miss on Labor Day felt? (Nevermind the fact that three of those teams weren’t as good as they looked.) It’s because those games got the spotlight.
3. It provides more real estate for big-game sponsors.
Bama-FSU and Tennessee-Georgia Tech are both at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both are sponsored by Chick-fil-A. And because one’s on Saturday and one’s on Monday, the fast food chain doesn’t have to program against itself. It can tell you to watch two different Chick-fil-A games, each at no expense to the other.
Maybe these games feel non-traditional, but they’ll keep happening.
College football won’t ever stop being a Saturday sport, but the people who run it will always look for extra exposure and cash wherever they can find it. Spreading around the Week 1 fun means higher ratings and more things to sell advertisers. Short of the NFL moving its season up in front of Labor Day, it’s hard to see that dynamic changing.