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Hot Reads: Do Friday Night Games Make Sense for Nebraska?

November 03, 2016

I’m not much for alarm bells or outrage, but I am for smart decisions. The Big Ten is usually pretty good at the latter, but I’m having a tough time seeing that with the decision to play games on Friday nights starting next season.

Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune first reported the news, and spoke to commissioner Jim Delany for the story. The Big Ten then started to announce the news via its own channels:

“We have thought a lot about this,” Big Ten senior associate commissioner for television administration Mark Rudner said. “(The six Friday night games) represent about six percent of the total home games that we will have in any year over the next six years. We think it is a great opportunity for significant exposure and more favorable use of national platforms for football.”

Generally not a great sign when we’re already talking about how this is such a small change — just 6 percent of games! — that you won’t even notice it. That indicates it’s being received as a huge change. And it is when you start to think about the logistics of taking everything that goes into a Husker home game, for example, on a Saturday — staffing, parking, lodging, etc., etc. — and dropping it on a Friday. There’s high school football to consider. There are recruiting implications.

But let’s focus on exposure, the public justification for upending everything else. “That is the key here,” Rudner said later in that same story.

Maybe that’s true for some mid-tier Big Ten teams, but, if exposure is the goal, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense for a school like Nebraska and others like it.

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This is really limited data, but here’s a quick look at the average viewership for a Friday night game involving at least one Power 5 school in 2016 and the average rating for a Saturday Nebraska game this season.

Those numbers, from Sports Media Watch, only include games on ESPN, ESPN2 or FS1 because networks like the Big Ten Network are not Nielsen rated. For Nebraska, that leaves six of eight games the Huskers have played this season (everything but Fresno State and Northwestern). For games that were mirrored (ABC/ESPN2) I took the total viewership for both channels in that time slot and divided by two to approximate Nebraska’s share.

Doing that, the Huskers have averaged 2.367 million viewers for its games this season with a high against Oregon (4.228m) and a low against Wyoming (1.126m).

The Friday night slot has included a hodgepodge of games, but I limited it to games including at least one Power 5 school. Some games — Kansas State-Stanford, Clemson-Boston College — included two. The average viewership for those games with at least one Power 5 school (11 total) is 1.557 million. If it was a Power 5 versus Group of 5 game, that average dropped down 1.151 million. A game between two Power 5 schools averaged 1.789 million.

Nebraska’s average rating is buoyed by big national games against Oregon and Wisconsin. I assume those aren’t the type of games the Huskers would be willing to move to a Friday night, so let’s take those out. The Huskers average viewership then comes down 1.551 million this season.

Can Nebraska do better than that on a Friday night? Maybe, but the gains would probably be slight. Four Friday night games have topped that average this season and all four were conference games: Louisville-Syracuse (1.73m), Stanford-Washington (3.333m), Clemson-Boston College (1.659m) and Duke-Louisville (1.881m). Kansas State-Stanford (1.36m) and USC-Utah (1.042m), both FS1 games, didn’t get there. The most-viewed Power 5-Group of 5 game on a Friday this season was Baylor-Rice at 1.454 million viewers.

Maybe the math is different for Illinois or Indiana. The conference has even made it seem like that’s the case by allowing Michigan to refuse Friday night games (good job, Wolverines). Penn State has also said it won’t host a Friday night game but it will play one on the road. Ohio State has one weekend when it would be willing to play at home on a Friday. And the Big Ten is apparently fine with both stipulations.

This is far from a comprehensive ratings analysis, but as a cursory look it gives me some serious doubts about the exposure angle. What it really seems like is an inventory play.

While nothing has officially been announced, everyone believes the Big Ten’s record-breaking TV deal with Fox Sports and ESPN/ABC is basically done. Based on yesterday’s news, it looks like those partners wanted some Friday night inventory, so they’re getting it.

And in return, the Big Ten will get a massive pile of money. That, really, is the key here.

It’s a different kind of smart. Some might call it shrewd.

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