Published September 11, 2012 - 6:40pm
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Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News reported last week that some SEC officials want to increase the number of Thursday night games as the conference determined its next scheduling cycle, starting next year. Solomon quoted SEC “consultant” Larry Templeton, who suggested every school would eventually play one Thursday night game. Solomon said this would be part of a proposed SEC Network the conference would develop in partnership with ESPN.
This is a puzzling proposal. There’s no obvious benefit to Thursday night games aside from giving ESPN additional programming (which is probably reason enough for some people). Thanks to federal antitrust law, college football already has an exclusive–i.e., NFL-free–broadcast window on Saturday. The NFL, through its own network, plans to expand its own Thursday night games to cover every week of the regular season. No doubt that’s why ESPN, a direct competitor of NFL Network, wants to counter with a brand-name college football game.
The NFL has never been one to obsess over product quality–see the replacement referees–as its primary objective is to saturate the market. The SEC shouldn’t adopt that mentality. Thursday night games degrade the product. College football had evolved and thrives as a Saturday sport. Just look at the name of this website. There’s a cost to abandoning that strong brand identification in service of ESPN.
College and professional football both face the problem of declining live attendance due to significant advances in the television experience. One reason for this decline is the expansion of nighttime games, which are less convenient for fans and more taxing on coaches and players. They’re great for networks looking to sell advertising, but otherwise Thursday night games are a diminished product. They’re almost cheap knockoffs of real college football games.
Supporters will point to strong ratings like the South Carolina-Vanderbilt opener on ESPN a couple weeks ago–4.1 million viewers!–as proof that Thursday night football is valuable real estate the SEC needs to occupy. But that was an opening week game where there was no competition from regular prime-time network programming or the NFL. A Thursday night opener is also less disruptive for teams than a Thursday night game in the middle of a season.
On Thursday, the SEC ceases to be a distinctive product and instead becomes one of many programming alternatives on television’s busiest night. There’s no upside. Nor is it a worthwhile price for developing an SEC-ESPN Network. SEC leaders are obviously anxious to start a network–because the Big 10 and Pac-12 have them–but diluting your core product isn’t the way to go. The SEC has never had more political or financial leverage than it does today. It doesn’t have to grovel to ESPN or anyone else.
There’s also a slippery-slope factor. Once you allow regular Thursday night games as part of an ESPN deal, there will eventually be demands for Wednesday and Friday nights, maybe even Tuesday. Smaller conferences already play on those nights in an effort to draw attention to themselves. But ESPN would certainly prefer the SEC, even among two non-marquee schools (I won’t name names). Eventually, the network will clamor for a signature rivalry game on weekday prime-time. Tuesday Night Iron Bowl, anyone?
This isn’t to condemn ESPN or television in general. They’re looking out for their interests. They need content to justify their premium cable prices. And therein lies the SEC’s advantage. The conference needs to market itself as the standard for high-quality college football–and that means Saturday football.