Wednesday December 6, 2023

How College Football’s Biggest Games Took Over Saturday Night

  • Disney’s networks have been the incumbent champions of the primetime window.
  • But with its “Big Ten Saturday Night” broadcast — inspired by “Sunday Night Football” — NBC is pushing for the spotlight.
College football is taking over Saturday night.
Kyle Robertson – Columbus Dispatch
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Outside of the traditional 7 p.m. ABC/ESPN game, top college football matchups have historically all kicked off in the daylight. Think Big Ten heavyweights during “Big Noon Kickoff” on Fox, or the 3:30 p.m. ET “SEC on CBS matchups.”

But for the first time, big-time college football is taking over Saturday night: Last week, more than 20 million people watched the sport during primetime across networks — topping “Sunday Night Football.”

The most-viewed game of each week this season has kicked off at 7 p.m. ET or later, according to Sports Media Watch data. Disney’s ABC and ESPN, and Saturday night newcomer NBC, have all enjoyed the benefits of this new trend. 

Disney’s networks have been the incumbent champions of the primetime window. But with its “Big Ten Saturday Night” broadcast — which is just four weeks old — NBC is making its own play for the spotlight.

The Week 1 ABC game between LSU and FSU garnered 9.17 million viewers — almost 2 million more than the Fox noon broadcast featuring Deion Sanders’ Colorado. Week 2’s Texas-Alabama matchup on ESPN notched 8.76 million viewers — again beating out Colorado’s noon ET game on Fox. 

Despite a 10 p.m. ET kickoff time, ESPN garnered 9.3 million viewers for the double-overtime Colorado-Colorado State game in Week 3. 

But last week, the Saturday night broadcast of Ohio State-Notre Dame notched 10.6 million viewers — more than any other game that day. It was also the second most-watched college football game ever on NBC, topped only by the 1993 “Game of the Century” between the Fighting Irish and FSU. 

NBC has believed in the success of a Saturday Night primetime college football for the better part of a decade, particularly given the popularity of the Notre Dame games the network has put in that window.

The network first pitched the idea of a weekly primetime Big Ten game — essentially a college version of “Sunday Night Football” — back in 2015, NBC President of Acquisitions and Partnerships, Jon Miller, told Front Office Sports. But the deal didn’t come to fruition until Commissioner Kevin Warren inked a seven-year, mid-$7 billion package along with Fox and CBS.

“We try to make ‘Sunday Night Football’ an event,” Miller said. “We decided to follow [that] model.”

The network sends a traveling countdown show to the home campus, and commissioned a theme song by Fall Out Boy (inspired by Carrie Underwood’s anthem, “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night”) that’s already become so popular that schools want to play it in stadiums, Miller said. 

The trend could have longevity for multiple networks, particularly given the new makeup of college football. 

Coast-to-coast conferences like the ACC and Big Ten ensure that networks will have options for fan bases around the country to tune into their evening games. And standout programs in the Mountain and Pacific time zone like Colorado provide even more combinations for popular matchups.

One expert industry source suggested that lack of competition in the evening window has also contributed to ratings success. Fox puts its best game on at noon, rather than at night, and CBS has never been in the business of putting its top games on after dark.

But the source noted: “If everybody starts adding them, that’ll end real quickly.”

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