Midweek Night Lights

It’s Wednesday night in November, baseball season is finally done, and the country’s still intact.  Pro basketball has a full slate of games, college basketball’s off and running, and the NHL is already more than a month into a surprisingly competitive season.

But for a surprisingly significant portion of the TV sports audience, that all takes a back burner.  Because, hey, there’s college football in dark, cold, sparsely-attended stadiums to be played.  By teams that would otherwise have minimal attention.

The Mid-American Conference is actually one that has produced some strong players over the years, including Hall of Famers like Randy Moss and Jack Lambert and, more recently, a prolific gunslinger named Ben Roethlisberger.  The 12 current members span a slew of Rust Belt cities between Buffalo and suburban Chicago, with a heavy concentration in Ohio and Michigan.  These are football hotbeds with decades of tradition and passion.  But they are also states where the Big Ten rules on any given Saturday, particularly when Ohio State and Michigan are strong.  As of yesterday, they are not only both among the four remaining undefeated teams, but they are on a collision course to play in the semifinals of the College Football playoffs (though, obviously, that will change once they actually play each other on November 26th in their regular season finale).

So when the MAC got the chance from ESPN to fill out a week by moving its late season schedule to weeknights otherwise eschewed by football of any kind–college, pro or high school–and dangled TV money at them, the trade-off that would have otherwise allowed its more ardent fans to still attend games on late autumn afternoons was seen as a necessary evil to give these schools the chance to have a national spotlight.

As The Buffalo News explained several years ago:

The MAC has played midweek games on ESPN since 1999. The conference’s current contract with the network pays each school roughly $830,000 a year, running through the 2026 football season. That’s a big upside. The downside is fans don’t like to attend midweek night games. They draw mostly poor attendance.

“The typical Tuesday-Wednesday game generates $6 million of exposure value,” said MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher at a one-day scheduling seminar with media in June. “That’s a pretty good infomercial for our member institutions.”

“Yes, if we had our preference,” Steinbrecher acknowledged, “we’d rather kickoff at 1 on Saturday. But if we want to generate significant revenue and we want to be a national conference not a regional conference, then we have to make accommodations.”
So MACtion is a staple of ESPN, not to mention ESPN2 and, now, CBS Sports Network, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November, essentially a precusor to the Bowl Week (now two weeks) expansion that typically offers at least one bowl game each night between mid-December and early January.  Many of the games in the first week, typically surrounding Christmas, involve MAC teams.  On many of those nights, they are the most-viewed telecasts of anything else on cable television save for Hallmark movies or Tucker Carlson.  Far and away, live college football attracts a significantly larger audience than most other sports do for ESPN and CBSSN.
ESPN had expanded to Thursdays and Fridays in earlier years, and larger conferences such as the ACC and Pac 12 are more commonly featured then.  The Sun Belt has dabbled in midweek games as well, though with less success than the MAC.  Somehow, the sight of Florida International co-eds shivering in 70 degree weather doesn’t quite match the emotional high of seeing the minimal crowds in cold weather gear with their breath visible.
So. yep, I’ll be watching.  I’ve got an emotional connection to Buffalo, and they’ve got a huge battle tonight with Central Michigan.  You can have the background noise of Knicks-Nets and Clippers-Lakers.  I’ll take the Bison.  And a hand warmer.



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