In the 1990s, playing college football during the week was an unorthodox idea, but officials in the Mid-American Conference also saw it as an opportunity.
When Paul Palian, now the director of media and public relations at Northern Illinois, was working with the MAC as its assistant commissioner for marketing and broadcasting, he said the league proposed showcasing football games on Monday nights.
The idea was for the MAC to host games at 6 p.m. as a lead-in to the NFL’s “Monday Night Football.” The conference already had begun what it called “MAC Mondays” during basketball season, where regional sports networks, such as Chicago’s SportsChannel, would showcase a MAC women’s game at 6 p.m., followed by a half-hour magazine-style show and then a men’s game.
“At the time, it was unconventional to play college football other than Saturdays or maybe those Thursday night games,” Palian said.
The MAC’s eagerness to have its schools shown on ESPN’s family of networks led league officials to buy in to weekday game scheduling for the conference’s most important games. They also agreed to give network officials considerable input into what games would be scheduled for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and what channel they would appear on.
However, the emergence of other networks eager to boost their stable of live sports events could give the MAC more leverage in negotiating its next TV contract, or in renegotiating its current one.
Nontraditional kickoff times have become a staple in the MAC. This season, 11 conference games were scheduled on a Tuesday or Wednesday, including three involving NIU.
The midweek matchups began when the first MAC Championship Game was created in 1997. The MAC was the third league to have a conference title game, but unlike the Southeastern Conference and Big 12, the MAC didn’t play its title game on a Saturday. The game took place on a Friday night, and the MAC held the championship on either a Thursday or Friday night ever since.
It was a sign of things to come.
In 1999, ESPN had a spot open up on Thursday, Oct. 14. Marshall, which would finish the season unbeaten and ranked 10th in the final Associated Press poll, beat Toledo, 34-14, on the network’s flagship station.
In 2000, Toledo and Bowling Green played a Wednesday night game televised on ESPN2, and the midweek games continued in the next few seasons, increasing to five in 2004, including NIU’s first Tuesday game, a 31-17 loss to Toledo.
Former MAC commissioner Rick Chryst credits the league’s overall success in 2003 for bringing the MAC to where it is today. NIU went 10-2 with wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. Miami finished 10th in the final AP poll and Bowling Green was ranked 23rd. The ESPN show “College GameDay” even traveled to Bowling Green on Oct. 25 when NIU visited Doyt-Perry Stadium.
That year transformed the perception of the conference from a collection of marginal programs to a conference that could be a factor in the national picture, Chryst said.
“It really solidified the MAC as a major college football playing conference,” Chryst said. “The context, really the first part of the decade was, a lot of the talk was about [NCAA Division 1-A] standards and minimum attendance, and was the league vulnerable to losing its 1-A status.
“The reality was going to be, do you look the part or not? Are you on TV? Are you in bowl games? Are you sending guys to the NFL? Because it was going to be a political judgment in the end.”
After the 2003 season, midweek games became a MAC staple.
“It all kind of evolved out of the fact that ESPN was looking for nontraditional windows for college football,” said Bob Gennarelli, who oversees scheduling and TV for the MAC. “When I arrived here with Rick Chryst, who was the commissioner in 1999, the directive from campus was television, we need more national television opportunities.”
Each winter, Gennarelli creates the football schedule for the next season, and ESPN has veto power on what games go in the midweek slots. ESPN officials decide what channel will show the game six to 12 days before kickoff. For example, Wednesday’s Ball State-NIU game was slated for ESPN2, while the Miami (Ohio)-Kent State contest was relegated to ESPNU.
There is no flex scheduling, and Wednesday’s Miami-Kent State game is an example of the perils of trying to forecast games that will make the best midweek matchups before the season begins. The Golden Flashes nearly made a BCS bowl last year but are only 2-8 this season, while the winless RedHawks fired coach Don Treadwell earlier this season.
Gennarelli said the league would like the opportunity for more Thursday or Friday nights, but that’s easier said than done. Gennarelli said there could be some Friday opportunities in terms of upcoming marquee nonconference games, such as Missouri’s visit to Toledo or Syracuse’s trip to Central Michigan in 2014, but both schools would have to agree on the date.
Meanwhile, competition for the midweek airtime is growing. The Sun Belt Conference scheduled two Tuesday games this year, and American Athletic Conference members Cincinnati and Memphis played on Wednesday, Oct. 30.
Yet the MAC still is in good position to garner more money if the conference renegotiates its TV deal with ESPN or signs a new one after the current deal expires in 2016. The value broadcast rights for live sports has skyrocketed in recent years and the power conferences have reaped the benefits with long-term deals averaging more than $200 million annually.
Although the MAC’s next TV deal won’t approach those numbers, the addition of several 24/7 sports networks will add to the MAC’s bargaining power. CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 and 2 now are players in the bidding.
“These guys are tripping over themselves trying to get live events,” said Bob Adgate, research director at Horizon Media. “[Midweek games] could be kind of a boost for these mid-level conferences like the MAC.”
Adgate added that the MAC could be seen as a cheaper alternative that provides a familiar and trusted product to viewers on less competitive football nights.
It all means that an unconventional trend, which has evolved from only a single MAC midweek game more than 10 years ago, likely will continue and become more prevalent in the conference for years to come.
“The beauty of the midweek games is it gives us primetime exposure when we otherwise wouldn’t get them. The windows are simply not available for primetime [on Saturday],” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “Could that change somewhere down the road? Perhaps. But for the foreseeable future, no. So if we want those windows, we’re going with the midweek.”