ESPN's Thursday night football proves big to the Big East

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Bill Luster, Post-Gazette
Fans swarm the field after Louisville defeated West Virginia in a Big East game Nov. 2 at Louisville.
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

West Virginia's stirring Sugar Bowl triumph in January, an event Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese called the most significant game in a conference history that happens to include Villanova's legendary 1985 basketball-championship upset of Georgetown, kindled a couple of profound television changes for the previously maligned football league:

The Big East got a new, improved, more lucrative contract with ESPN, reportedly worth $250 million for both basketball (to which CBS kicked in) and football between 2007-13.

The Big East got rid of its Wednesday night football.

OK, so the league grew bigger this season on a different night, in a made-for-ESPN, prime-time special.

Welcome to Thursday night lights, a profitable venture for ESPN and this basketball-concentrated league and its members, even if the coaches and the players find such midweek contests cumbersome for their football and academic workloads.

"I like to have college football on Saturday afternoons, every once in a while on Saturday nights," said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, so old-fashioned at age 43 that he still believes the season should have ended in November instead of his Mountaineers finishing Saturday against Rutgers. "Thursday nights are not natural. ... [Yet] once a year play a Thursday night game. But maybe those days are done.

"Why are we playing a 12th game? It's for money. Why are we playing on TV? It's for money. Let's be honest, that's what it is. Sure, TV helps with recruiting. We can't complain about it as coaches if you want these [costly, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses] things in our program. That's why you won't hear me complain. But, at the same time, you'd like there to be a limit to things. In other words, let's not play three, four midweek games during the year. And if we're going to play the 12-game season, I think they ought to start a week earlier in August. You can't move it back any further. Pretty soon, you'll play your last game and play your bowl game a week later."

Dave Brown, the ESPN vice president of programming who plays a critical role in spreading out a 2006 college football schedule that included a game every day of the week, considers the Big East's Thursday-through-Saturday flexibility a boon for all.

"I give credit to the conference office, Mike and Nick [Carparelli Jr., the associate commissioner in charge of football scheduling] and all eight athletic directors for really embracing it. Hopefully, it's a very good tool for them from an exposure standpoint. It's certainly worked great for us."

It worked so well for the Bristol, Conn.-based cable empire that ESPN garnered its two highest Thursday night ratings from Big East games this season. First, West Virginia-Louisville Nov. 2 shattered the network's 11-year-old record for a Florida State-Virginia matchup with a 5.3 rating that translated to 4.91 million households tuned in. Then, a week later, Louisville-Rutgers captured a 5.0 ranking and 4.62 million households.

Those two Big East contests represent the second- and third-largest audiences for regular-season college football broadcasts in ESPN's history -- Thursday, Saturday, whenever.

This, remember, from the conference left for dead two years ago when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College fled for the Atlantic Coast Conference and pared almost in half the TV deals that starting next year will average $36 million, an increase of as much as 140 percent.

"The three Thursdays in a row, we thought they had a chance to be great games," the Big East's Carparelli said, lumping in the West Virginia-Pitt Nov. 16 contest that garnered a 3.0 rating. "We couldn't have known they'd be this big."

The November troika helped to push the Big East to record ratings on their broadcast partner, which airs games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, in syndication on ESPN Regional/ESPN GamePlan and even online. And the Big East's relative potency this season, with three teams in the Top 15, in turn helped to push ESPN's outlets to air a record number of conference games, 18 alone on its flagships ESPN and ESPN2. To put that into perspective, their new contract completed in August -- locking up basketball and football broadcasts for a six-year extension starting next year -- requires only a total of 17 games broadcast on the network's array of channels and just 14 home games under the old deal.

As for midweek games, ESPN aired six involving Big East teams -- four Thursdays and two Fridays -- and averaged a 3.2 rating and 2.97 million households. ESPN2 aired three on Fridays and averaged a 1.0. By contrast, the network averaged a 0.9 rating for all its non-Big East Thursday and Friday games, from similar arrangements with Conference USA, the Mid-American and the Western Athletic conferences. That's still a higher number than the network got for regular-season NHL games when it had that professional contract. So there is an audience, there are advertisers.

"If you look at a school like Louisville, they will tell you they built their program playing on Thursday nights before they got to the Big East," Pitt athletic director Jeff Long said. "Otherwise, their games weren't seen on Saturdays."

"It's the college football version of Monday Night Football," ESPN's Brown said of Thursdays, which increasingly draws interest from teams wanting to be televised on that night next season. "It's the gateway to the weekend of college football. If we can really put a strong schedule out there, advertisers gravitate to it because consumers are forming their weekend buying habits on Thursday and Friday."

Fridays, though, seem to be a different deal. College coaches aren't enamored with the notion of intruding on what is traditionally a high school night. Playing then not only means they cannot recruit those scholastic games, it also means they cannot entertain many prospects at their own, concurrent home games.

Long maintains that the Panthers' stance is to avoid any home Friday games, allowing the WPIAL and City League its own night. In fact, the Panthers' administration and coaching staff isn't overly excited about midweek games because of their fan and academics intrusiveness, though they grasp the importance of the exposure and the electricity of the aura and the separation from other area games, such as the Steelers.

"It's all those things, to be honest," Long added. "On one level, we're traditional, and a large part of our fans are traditional in that they like to play Saturday games. But, also, our fans like Thursday night matchups because it's the thing to do, it's the game on that night. It certainly has benefits not only for athletics but the institution as a whole."

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, however, doesn't like the weeknight gamses.

"I really don't like playing on a day other than Saturday. I know we have to do it because of the TV and the money. I don't like it, No. 1, because of the high schools [on Fridays]. And, No. 2, during the week because of missing class. Coaches get put under the pressure of not graduating your players and all that, but then you're going to play during the week," Edsall said. "I think what has to happen, the NCAA wants to talk about the APR and graduation rates, but they allow -- and TV dictates it -- that kids go out and miss classes due to games during the week."

Funny he should mention the NCAA. It was shoved out of the college-football TV business in 1984, after Georgia and Oklahoma sued the governing body over antitrust infringement and took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 in their favor. Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, a former Colorado All-America and Steelers back, wrote in the dissenting opinion that the NCAA's old TV plan fostered "the goal of amateurism," and he warned about the rising "financial incentives toward professionalism." He was onto something, for it grew from the College Football Association that first decade into the every-man-for-himself the past decade (see Notre Dame's $9 million-or-so annually from NBC for home games).

Here's another look at old vs. new: From 1952-84, the NCAA permitted teams just six TV appearances over two seasons; this season, West Virginia was on ESPN five times and ESPN2 three.

Three of those were Thursdays and one a Friday for West Virginia. Pitt this season played one Thursday and two Fridays. Penn State and the Big Ten, for the most part, are a Saturdays-only bunch -- something Rodriguez, for one, envies.

"Regular-season scheduling is a responsibility of member institutions; the NCAA does not get involved in the activity," Stacey Osburn, an NCAA associate director for public and media relations, replied in an e-mail interview. "Because of this, each institution must address the potential of missed class times and make decisions on what it believes is best for the student-athletes and its programs."

Tranghese acknowledged that the Big East would prefer its own glistening Saturday window. But he also noted how it carved out this midweek niche. As evidence, he pointed to the 11 percent of America that got the chance to watch a split-national ABC telecast of Louisville-West Virginia in 2005, the triple-overtime thriller that was one of the games of the year. The Big East could have shoved this year's game -- a battle between then-undefeated Nos. 3 and 5 -- to a Saturday and received a decent audience. "But we took a chance," Tranghese said. "No competition. One-hundred percent of the country. ... This was the game we started our [entire TV] schedule with."

"If we could have the same level of exposure on a Saturday, that would be the ultimate," Carparelli added. "We don't know if that's possible."

It is a big business: Fox spent $332 million for the right to televise just 16 games, or $20.75 million per game: the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and national-championship finale for each of the next four years. Fox also is creating a Big Ten Channel with that conference, which separately re-upped with ESPN for $1 billion over 10 years -- quite possibly the richest of the single conference sports contracts.

With such sizeable investments, no wonder games even appear on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays on ESPNU, the station born in 2004 after a Justice Department investigation over antitrust concerns of ESPN hoarding games and amid allegations from fledgling CSTV that ESPN was copying its idea of all college sports, all the time.

One last fact about the new Big East TV deals: A move to Wednesday night is still on the table, with ESPN allowed to request one per season -- but that doesn't mean conference teams have to accept it, the way West Virginia in 2005 had to play back-to-back Wednesdays in November and then the Backyard Brawl on Thanksgiving the following Thursday.

For the players themselves, midweek games and flexible scheduling have been a mixed bag.

"Horrible," was how it was described by West Virginia linebacker Jay Henry, one of only 17 National Football Foundation scholar-athletes. "For me, I need to go to class as much as I can. I've missed so much class, in Thanksgiving break I was doing homework all the time, catching up, doing projects. You can study on the flight and stuff, but once you get there your mind really isn't able to focus. You're thinking about the game and about watching film at the hotel, meetings ...

"They're fun to play. And you're on TV. There are pros and cons to it: You don't have to get up and go to class. But, at the same time, I got to make up all this work, man."

Added Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades: "The teachers are very understanding about things like that, especially representing the university on the field. Plus, I think it's fun. It gives teams an opportunity to play on national TV, at night, during the week. You know everybody in the country is watching because nobody else is playing. And people will watch any kind of games."

Yesterday: How TV took control of sports

Today: Thursday night college games have catapulted the Big East to national attention.

Tomorrow: You can watch a football game on TV Thursday, Friday or Saturday. And those are just high school games.

 

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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