Other than clothing and hairstyles — leisure suits and mullets will make comebacks, mark my words — entrenched culture rarely shifts into reverse, which makes the decision by Fox Sports to televise its top college football games at noon this season so surprising.
Fox is altering its college football coverage by prioritizing its biggest Big Ten and Big 12 games at lunchtime on Saturdays, including at least several involving Ohio State. Besides the traditional noon kickoff for Ohio State vs. Michigan, it’s a good bet that OSU-Penn State on Nov. 23 will kick at noon, and the Buckeyes at Nebraska (Sept. 28) and against Wisconsin in the Horseshoe (Oct. 26) likely are in the mix as well.
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Actually, any Ohio State game that Fox considers a potential ratings bonanza could wind up at noon, depending on the network “draft,” where TV executives pick season “windows” on a rotating basis. Example: Fox picks first and takes Nov. 30, the date of Ohio State-Michigan.
Why go away from late afternoon and prime-time games? Fox thinks it makes good business sense — and has rating numbers to prove it. The top five Fox college football broadcasts last season were noon games: Ohio State-Michigan (13.2 million viewers), Oklahoma-Texas (5.6 million), Michigan-Michigan State (5.4), Ohio State-Michigan State (5.2) and Ohio State-Nebraska (5.0).
Fox also likes the idea of carving out a noon niche to get the jump on — and distance itself from — ABC-ESPN, which puts its biggest games in primetime; and CBS, which at 3:30 p.m. cashes in on Southeastern Conference coverage.
Michael Mulvihill, executive vice president of Fox Sports programming and research, explained the network’s thinking:
“Putting games at noon is about seeing a competitive opportunity” he said. “I wouldn’t say this was something that came about suddenly. It was something where as last season went on, we began to see the strength in our (noon ratings) numbers. And now we’re going all the way with it. It becomes our identity, a way to communicate to fans that Saturday college football starts on Fox.”
And it starts with a new pregame show that features Urban Meyer, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. Fox hopes the show rivals what ESPN has with College GameDay. (Meyer pushed for more prime-time games when he coached at Ohio State, explaining that night games helped with recruiting. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he has not discussed the noon kickoffs with Buckeyes coach Ryan Day.)
The scheduling move makes sense from a TV ratings standpoint, even if plenty of younger fans won’t like the change. Fewer night games means less time to party/tailgate before kickoff, less time to sleep off Friday night hangovers and typically less energy during games. But the in-stadium fan experience has never really mattered to TV executives.
Smith said quality of opponent generally affects attendance more than when the games begin.
“One of the things that hit me when they made their presentation was that there are more people at home during the noon hour as opposed to at night,” said Smith, who learned of the noon emphasis during Big Ten meetings with Fox executives earlier this month.
Older fans likely will applaud the Fox move. I spoke to a “Woody-era” woman who thinks every Ohio State game should begin by 1:30 p.m., as was standard practice before more games became televised and networks gained control of start times.
Travel plans also simplify with noon games. Get up early and be back home in time for dinner, or before midnight if driving from longer distances. Hotels will rue the loss of business as fewer night games means travelers no longer needing to stay overnight, but I can think of one business — ahem — that approves of the noon boon. Less deadline pressure.