Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Weekday Mercenaries

In the past decade, college football has spread from a largely Saturday event to a nearly week round affair. In the first week of the coming season for instance, besides the usual slate of Saturday games, there are eleven games scheduled for Thursday August 30th, two on Friday the 31st, one on Sunday September 2nd, and two the following Monday night.

How long until Tuesday and Wednesday start to see college games?

By-and-large, the teams that play on these “off days” have a common characteristic – relatively low attendance at their home games.

As an all around college football fan, I love the added exposure the non-Saturday games bring. However, as a Florida fan, I would detest a Thursday night (or otherwise) game. Florida football for me is an event that includes traveling to Gainesville on Friday and spending the entire weekend in town. A Thursday night game would require missed work on both Thursday and Friday, and couldn’t have nearly the appeal of an all day Saturday tailgate.

Fortunately, in my two and half decades of Florida football experience, I cannot recall a single time where the Gators have played a regular season game on a day other than Saturday.

The fans of other schools are not so fortunate.

Who are these weekday warriors? What makes a school pass on the tradition and pageantry of Saturday football to play a game on a weekday? Why would a University schedule a game that would cause alumni great inconvenience, and interrupt the weekly school schedule of their student athletes?

Money and exposure, that’s why.

Now, that answer may seem obvious. But at what point is a team willing to forgo the traditional college football experience for the extra dollars and exposure of a non-Saturday game?

To answer that question, let’s look at the top 10 schools in home attendance in 2006 –

1. Michigan – 110,026
2. Penn St. – 107,567
3. Tennessee – 105,789
4. Ohio St – 105,096
5. Georgia – 92, 746
6. LSU - 92, 212
7. Alabama – 92,138
8. USC – 91,480
9, Florida – 90,409
10. Texas – 88,505

This list is immediately revealing. When was the last time any of these teams played a non-Saturday regular season game? And, with 90,000 plus fans filling your stadium, why would you?

Now, take a look at the Thursday night games to begin the season –

Thursday, August 30

7:00 PM Buffalo at Rutgers
7:00 PM Miami (OH) at Ball State
7:00 PM Southeast Missouri State at Cincinnati
7:00 PM Tulsa at Louisiana-Monroe
7:30 PM Murray State at Louisville
8:00 PM Kent State at Iowa State
8:00 PM Southeastern Louisiana at New Mexico State
8:00 PM UNLV at Utah State
8:00 PM LSU at Mississippi State
9:05 PM Weber State at Boise State
10:00 PM Utah at Oregon State

While schools like Rutgers and Louisville may be popular “up-and-comers”, the truth remains that their home games are comparatively poorly attended.

The following is the average attendance of the home team in the above list for 2006 (with overall attendance rank) –

Rutgers – 41,113 (55th)
Ball State – 15,061 (112th)
Cincinnati – 20,373 (90th)
Louisiana-Monroe – 18,594 (99th)
Louisville – 41,482 (54th)
Iowa State – 46,171 (44th)
New Mexico State – 17,596 (100th)
Utah State – 11,390 (118th)
Mississippi State – 41,527 (53rd)
Boise State – 30,453 (75th)
Oregon State – 40,830 (57th)

Not a single team on that opening Thursday in August is better than 44th nationally in attendance, or has over 47,000 people per game.

Of the opening Thursday games, three are presently set to be televised nationally – LSU v. MSU on ESPN, Tulsa v La Monroe on ESPN 2, and Murray St at Louisville on ESPN-U.

Teams like Louisville take the TV payout for matters of simple math. For example, tickets at Florida are $32 per seat, so a UF home game generates $2,893,088 per game in ticket sales only (more on this later). At Louisville, tickets are actually $40 per seat, which totals out at $1,659,280 per game.

That’s $1.2 + million more per game at Florida.

Booster contributions at Florida are also substantially more than Louisville. At Louisville, the most expensive per seat donation is $700. At Florida it is $2000 (going up to $2600 by 2010).

So, while Louisville may create a lot of national “buzz” lately, they still have less average attendance than Stanford (41,742).

The rest of opening weekend finds the following games –

Friday August 31

7:30 PM Navy at Temple (Avg. attendance 15,810 – 107th)
8:00 PM Washington at Syracuse (Avg. attendance 37,263 – 62nd)

Sunday, September 2

12:05 AM Northern Colorado at Hawaii (Avg. attendance 36,589 – 65th)

Monday, September 3

4:00 PM Texas Tech at Southern Methodist (Avg. attendance 15,428 – 109th)
8:00 PM Florida State at Clemson (Avg. attendance 82,992 – 14th)

Clemson is obviously the game that sticks out. However, as a prime-time nationally televised event (with presumably a nice pay-out), it is somewhat understandable.

Of the major conferences, the ACC seems more than willing to encourage its members to play non-Saturday contests. Of course, when you look at the average attendance of ACC schools, perhaps the “major conference” moniker is overstated. The aforementioned Clemson is the highest ACC school in average attendance, and the list looks as follows (with national ranking, and non-ACC school most closely comparable in attendance) –

Clemson – 14th (Wisconsin)
FSU – 17th (Notre Dame)
Virginia Tech – 23rd (UCLA)
Virginia -29th (Washington)
NC State – 32nd (Kentucky)
Georgia Tech – 40th (Texas Tech)
Maryland – 41st (Kansas St)
North Carolina – 42nd (Kansas St)
Miami – 51st (UTEP)
Boston College – 59th (Connecticut)
Wake Forest – 70th (Memphis)
Duke – 92nd (Toledo)

With NC State pulling less than Kentucky does, and Miami having poorer attendance than UTEP, perhaps the non-Saturday games make sense for the ACC.

While the ACC plays several non-Saturday games this season (Maryland, Miami, Wake, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech all have one home game each), no BCS conference plays on the off days like the Big East. By my count, the Big East plays at least 14 games on a day other than Saturday this season, with Louisville being the off weekend champion with 4 home games and 2 road games on a day other than Saturday. Recently much heralded Rutgers manages 3 home games, and 1 road game, during the week nights.

Of course, when it comes to attendance, the Big East is barely on the radar screen. The far and away top Big East team in attendance is West Virginia (58,773 – ranked 27th nationally) followed by Pitt (43,305 – ranked 48th nationally).

Notably, WVU and Pitt play but one game each not on a Saturday.

As for mid-major conferences, expect anywhere-anytime this season, with Boise State in particular playing nearly every day of the week.

Overall however, not a single team in the top 10 in 2006 attendance will play a home game anytime but Saturday (Thanksgiving week excepted). The best attended school not to play on Saturday will be that opening game at Clemson verses Florida State.

What does it take for a school to become a weekday mercenary? In general, if you have an average home attendance more than 60,000 per game you don't play on any day other than Saturday. The only exceptions for the 2007 season are FSU at Clemson, Boston College at Virginia Tech (Avg. Attendance 66,233) and Kentucky at South Carolina* (Avg. Attendance 75,630).

As college football spreads out from a Saturday affair, the sport continues to look more and more businesslike. However, this is by no means a complaint. Money and exposure are bringing us some great weeknights of college football, for which I personally am grateful.

Likewise, I am also thankful that my Gators don’t play any day but Saturday.

*Interestingly, South Carolina played a Thursday home game in 2006 (a loss to Auburn) that enabled Steve Spurrier to attend Florida's 100th anniversary celebration the following Saturday, an event at which he was honored. Coincidence? You decide.

UPDATE: Reader Dave makes the following interesting point –

Of course, now a lot of non-BCS teams want to follow the Louisville and Boise State models, and as you noted there's a huge proliferation of Thursday games (11 alone on August 30). I really think the Law of Diminishing Returns will set in, and there might just be a backlash against Thursday games. There just isn't a national TV market for more than maybe two or three games on Thursday. We'll probably end up with two or three games with BCS schools (mostly Big East and ACC), and not much else.

I would agree that too many Thursday night games would have “diminishing returns”. And, while the 11 August 30th Thursday night games can be chalked up in large part to it being “opening night”, the real change is the variety of days outside of Saturday that games are now being played.

It wasn’t so long ago that a single Thursday night game on ESPN was the only “off-Saturday” game (remember the Virginia – FSU thriller in 1995 that ended the Seminole’s ACC unbeaten streak?). With a single Thursday game viewers could focus on the two feature teams.

After the opening week this season, the number of off-Saturday games starts out relatively slow, but picks up steam as the season goes on. By week, the following is the off-Saturday games of the 2007 season –

Week 2: 2 Thurs, 1 Fri
Week 3: 2 Thurs, 1 Fri
Week 4: 2 Thurs, 1 Fri, 1 Sun
Week 5: 1 Thurs, 1 Fri
Week 6: 1 Tues, 1 Wed, 1 Thurs, 1 Fri, 2 Sun (Only Monday without college football!)
Week 7: 1 Wed, 1 Thurs, 1 Fri, 1 Sun
Week 8: 2 Thurs, 2 Fri, 1 Sun
Week 9: 2 Tues, 2 Fri, 2 Sun
Week 10: 1 Thurs, 3 Fri, 1 Sun
Week 11: 1 Tues, 1 Wed, 2 Thurs, 2 Fri
Week 12: 1 Tues, 1 Wed, 2 Thurs, 2 Fri
Week 13: 1 Tues, 1 Thurs, 8 Friday (Thanksgiving Week)
Week 14: 1 Thurs, 1 Fri

That’s 62 non-Saturday games after the first week. Virtually all of them are televised by your “Worldwide Leader”. Dimishing returns indeed.

Plus, Vegas must be very happy.

4 comments:

Dave said...

Thanks for the fascinating post. I know that the TV dollars are pulling teams with poorer attendance to Thursday, and you've showed that. I also think the chance at exposure is another huge part of it.

The only reason why Boise State was a well-known team by last year was not only from winning lots of games, but having the eyes of college football solely on them during past Thursday night games. For a western team, especially one from a non-BCS conference to have the name recognition BSU had during last season is remarkable. The blue turf helped, but so did playing Thursday night. Louisville especially took advantage of Thursday night games in its C-USA days to pave its way into the Big East.

The Big East seized the opportunity to have its teams get the Thursday spotlight after ACC expansion in order to get people to watch its teams and try to rebuild its credibility. Plus, Pitt-USF (to pull two teams at random from the air) probably does not get televised when going up against weekly games from the other BCS conferences, but on Thursday it's the headlining act.

Of course, now a lot of non-BCS teams want to follow the Louisville and Boise State models, and as you noted there's a huge proliferation of Thursday games (11 alone on August 30). I really think the Law of Diminishing Returns will set in, and there might just be a backlash against Thursday games. There just isn't a national TV market for more than maybe two or three games on Thursday. We'll probably end up with two or three games with BCS schools (mostly Big East and ACC), and not much else. There's no reason for Utah State to play on Thursday if the only TV coverage of it is the local/regional Utah sports station that will be broadcasting it on Saturday anyway.

Kevin @ Fanblogs.com said...

The ACC attendance statements probably deserve a qualifing statements, such as... the ACC stadiums are smaller on average than...say...the SEC stadiums which skews the comparison, the SEC teams played more home games than the ACC teams, that 2006 attendance at ACC games was a new conference record, and that ACC average attendance was up in 2006, despite what most consider a lackluster year for many of premiere teams. Just saying.

Henry Gomez said...

Why do you suppose those stadiums are smaller? The size of the stadium should only really affect average attendance if you are selling out. In other words it doesn't matter if your stadium only seats 50,000 if you only sell 40,000 tickets.

Also when you look at average game attendance you are controlling for number of games.

Mergz said...

Kevin,

While it is true that ACC stadiums are generally smaller than SEC ones, most of them come no where near to filling to capacity. Only Clemson and Virginia Tech had an average attendance at their capacity last season, while FSU was close.

The rest of the schools don’t nearly make capacity. Miami’s Orange Bowl, for instance, seats 72,319, but averages only 41,908 (and it looks pitful with the empty seats on TV). Were Miami to actually fill their stadium for home games, they would move from 51st nationally to a respectable 21st.

As for the SEC teams playing more home games, the figures are average attendance, not total attendance, so number of homes games doesn’t matter.

Finally, it is little surprise that the ACC had record attendance last season. It is only their second year with 12 teams.