Speaking of which:....
Washington Post: Thursday Night Spotlight (ESPN-College Football). Lead [-]
In honor of USC/NC State Game tonight...article! And the start of football season! YES!
Thursday Night Spotlight
Playing Two Days Before Saturday Seen As a Boon to Schools, Conferences, ESPN
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008; E01
Thursday night college football was stagnating, and there wasn't a whole lot the folks at ESPN could do about it. Coaches didn't appreciate having to alter their teams' weekly routines just so they could play on short rest. University administrators were reluctant to deal with the traffic and parking issues caused by an influx of fans wanting to get into campus areas and a throng of 9-to-5 workers desperate to get out.
Most critically, sports television viewers were less interested in the low-profile matchups that frequented the channel's Thursday night lineup. Then in 2003, the desperate-for-attention Big East turned to ESPN, and the network was waiting with welcoming arms.
In the years since, the caliber of contests consistently featured on Thursday nights has improved, leading to a domino effect that has turned what once was considered an annoyance into a marquee event for all involved.
As fans grew more enticed, ratings improved. As ratings improved, university administrators became more willing to ensure that their teams would share in the national spotlight. And scheduling adjustments eased coaches' concerns over limited preparation time.
"It's become the 'Monday Night Football' of college football," said Dave Brown, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. "It's one night a week when you know everyone is watching."
That's exactly the type of arrangement Big East associate commissioner Nick Carparelli Jr. sought for the football programs that remained in the conference after the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College a year later. Without three of its key football attractions, the general consensus was that the Big East no longer was worthy of its status as a BCS conference.
Well aware of how crowded a college football fan's television viewing schedule can be on Saturdays, Carparelli grew concerned that even the Big East's best games would get lost amid the blur of choices.
"We needed to showcase ourselves to maximize our exposure, so we elected to put our best matchups on Thursday nights," said Carparelli, who is responsible for the Big East's football scheduling. "Whether we could compete or not, we wanted to show people that we would put ourselves out there. It was a risk. If we couldn't compete, people would see that, too."
With several Big East programs undergoing resurgences at the time, midseason contests pitting teams such as West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers against one another on Thursday nights suddenly became more appealing.
In 2006, West Virginia was ranked No. 3 in the BCS ratings when it visited No. 5 Louisville for a matchup on a Thursday night in early November. The telecast earned the highest television rating ever for a Thursday night game on ESPN. Louisville won, climbed to No. 3 in the BCS ratings and then traveled to Rutgers, 13th in the BCS ratings, the following Thursday night.
"It's given us tremendous exposure and launched us to where we are now," Carparelli said. "I like to think that [Thursday night] spot has kind of become the Big East's showcase spot."
The ACC could make that claim, as well. North Carolina State will kick off this year's Thursday night ESPN slate tonight at South Carolina. It will mark the 58th time an ACC team has been featured on ESPN's Thursday night broadcast.
According to Brown, the success of the Thursday night matchups featuring Big East and ACC teams in recent seasons has made programs from the Pacific-10 and Big 12 more willing to give the time slot a chance.
"The ACC and the Big East have been the backbone of our Thursday night schedule," Brown said. "It's never been more successful from a viewership standpoint than in the past two years."
On Nov. 28, 1985, the first Thursday night game ever broadcast on ESPN featured No. 18 Texas at No. 15 Texas A&M. The Aggies beat the Longhorns, 42-10, which was much more of an inconvenience than actually having to play on a weekday, according to then-Texas coach Fred Akers. After all, Akers said, Texas and Texas A&M long ago had established a tradition of playing on Thanksgiving.
Akers said his biggest concern when he was approached about the possibility of playing on a day other than Saturday was that the game would interfere with the Friday night high school football schedule.
"It's such a tradition in the state of Texas," he said. "We didn't want to mess with it."
Once it was confirmed the contest would be on Thursday night, Akers gave the go-ahead. At that point in the season, he said his players already were in top shape, and the opponent wasn't much of a mystery; the game was just two days earlier than normal.
"It didn't create any problems for us," Akers said. "I just wish we had won the game."
Over the next 20 years, not everyone would share Akers's even-keeled attitude toward playing on a weeknight. Several people contacted for this story said there was considerable hesitation on the part of coaches who did not want to disrupt their typical game-week schedule and who did not want to make their players perform on short rest.
Tommy West, who was the head coach at Clemson from 1993 to 1998, acknowledged that apprehension did exist among his fellow coaches across the country. However, West said he and his coaching staff took a more progressive stance toward playing on Thursday nights.
"It's the exposure, to be the only show," said West, now the head coach at Memphis. "Now it's proven to be true. Back then, nobody knew how to handle it."
West said his staff cut two days out of the team's practice schedule, moved delivery of the scouting report from Tuesday to Sunday and emphasized game planning over intensity during workouts. As other teams began to adapt their schedules similarly, coaches realized, as West did, that "sometimes, a short week is not all bad."
Conferences also began helping coaches warm to the idea of playing on a weekday by scheduling such games after a bye week. In fact, ACC associate commissioner Michael Kelly said this will be the first season each ACC team with a Thursday night contest will have it preceded by a bye week.
According to Kelly, the ACC is obligated by its television contract with ESPN to play six Thursday night contests. This season, the ACC will play seven Thursday night games to make up for 2007, when it played only five.
Kelly, who is responsible for the ACC's football scheduling, said ESPN gives the conference a list of up to a dozen games it would like to see played on Thursday nights each year. The final selections, Kelly said, are based largely on logistics. It is easier for schools in larger metropolitan areas, such as Miami or Georgia Tech, to host a Thursday night game than it is for more secluded schools, such as Wake Forest or Clemson.
During the early 1990s, some school administrators struggled to see how the reward of the national television spotlight was worth the effort necessary to organize the affair, according to Bernadette McGlade, formerly an associate athletic director at Georgia Tech.
"It was really challenging," said McGlade, now the commissioner of the Atlantic 10 conference. "Some [athletic departments] could not get clearance from their campuses to host games on weekdays. You wind the clock ahead now 20 years, and people are eager to do it."
West Virginia Athletic Director Ed Pastilong is one such person, though he said managing a Thursday night game requires a considerable group effort. According to Pastilong, many employers in Morgantown let workers off at 3 p.m. on days the Mountaineers host a weeknight contest and that fans are asked not to enter the city until after 5 p.m.
"Most schools now realize that while it might be a little extra work, at the end of the day it's the right thing to do for your program, as well as your conference," said Kelly, who was the director of athletic operations and facilities at Wake Forest from 1995 to 1998. "Programs look at it more as a badge of honor rather than a burden like they might have used to."
This fall, ESPN will broadcast 16 Thursday night games during the 15-week regular season. Of the six BCS conferences, only the Big Ten is without a representative on ESPN's Thursday night slate.
Among the high-profile matchups scheduled to take place on Thursday nights in the coming months are Clemson at Wake Forest on Oct. 9 and Auburn at West Virginia on Oct. 23. Maryland plays at Virginia Tech on Nov. 6.
"The franchise is just getting bigger and bigger games," Brown said. "It's a chance to spotlight a program for recruiting and media attention."
As for those who have to compete during the week, rather than on Saturdays, many said they don't mind.
"It's a huge honor," North Carolina State tight end Anthony Hill said. "The team loves it. The only thing players don't like is that they still have class on Friday."