Every week this season, The Student Section will offer not so much a viewer’s guide — you generally know where to find the game you want — as a vision of what a future college football schedule might look like.
I will add: “Should look like.”
Before going any further, let this much be said: In a perfect world, everything happens smoothly, but that’s simply not the reality of television, and it’s certainly not the reality of college football. Everything about this sport is messy — this has always been fundamentally if not entirely true, and it always will be.
Moreover, there’s a definite realization on my part — more so than, say, four or five years ago — of the difficulties of scheduling college football for television. Thursday games, Friday games, Sun Belt Tuesdays, MAC Wednesdays — you can schedule all the games you want on other days of the week, but this is still a Saturday sport. This means plenty of games will compete with each other in the same windows.
The glut of college football programming we encounter today (it’s definitely a happy problem, since much of the sport was not similarly accessible 30 years ago…) also means that ESPN and its family of networks must perform a lot of juggling to accommodate the other many sports it airs. Then combine these constraints with the contractual commitments that have to be honored with conferences: which network gets first pick of a game in a given week, which games are six-day holds, which quotas need to be filled to satisfy various distribution requirements, and more.
College football scheduling for television is so much more of a tightrope than many first appreciate. ESPN’s coverage (and how favorable it is to the SEC) forms a basis (and avenue) for criticism, but in the separate realm of scheduling, the WorldWide Leader frankly does an excellent job. You could perhaps argue with this claim on the margins, but since ESPN carries the bulk of these contractual commitments and their attendant nuances, the scheduling product has become durably consistent and reliable over time.
What follows is not so much a criticism of other networks — Fox Sports 1 and CBS — so much as it is a commentary on the fact that one (FS1) is a growing network which needs to make a mark, and that the other (CBS) is not generally constrained by competing sports programming the way ESPN is.
FS1 and CBS are more in position to be schedule-based innovators in college football, as you’ll see below. ESPN (with partner ABC) is too overloaded to be agile in the ways this weekly article will promote, but that’s not a criticism; it’s merely a reflection of the reality of the industry. With that last point in mind, here’s a vision of how the week one college football schedule could look like in an ideal world:
THE IDEAL COLLEGE FOOTBALL SCHEDULE: WEEK ONE
There’s only one thing about Thursday, Sept. 3, which should be better, and that’s the scheduling of the TCU-Minnesota game following the South Carolina-North Carolina game on ESPN. The officially allotted window for Gamecocks-Tar Heels is three hours. Given that this is a Thursday night and not a Saturday afternoon or evening, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling competing interest or any sort of reason for ESPN to have to fit two football games into six and a half hours. Two normal 3.5-hour windows would seem appropriate here.
Late Thursday night and Friday afternoon, things get a little more interesting. This is where risk-taking on the part of Fox Sports 1 becomes more advisable.
You will note that late Thursday/early Friday, CBS Sports Network airs a game from Hawaii (the Rainbow Warriors versus Colorado) at 1 a.m. Eastern, 10 p.m. Pacific. If we’re going to bother to air a late game on a non-Friday weeknight, we have already opened the door to other unconventional time slots… such as the 3:30 Eastern slot for a non-holiday Friday, when ESPNU carries Charlotte against Georgia State. (That’s an FBS game; Charlotte is now a member of Conference USA.)
If we’re going to have weekday afternoon (non-holiday) college football, and middle of the night college football, why doesn’t FS1 enter the fray? The network could air Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi (a game it airs this weekend) at 11:30 Eastern on Friday morning, before Charlotte-Georgia State.
Before you say that’s absurd (first: it is absurd; second: a lot of other things about recent college football scheduling for television are absurd, but fans want more football, so it happens…), realize this about the actual day and time for the MSU-USM kickoff on FS1.
It’s not exactly student or fan friendly to begin with:
LRT: Y'all, Mississippi State is playing at Southern Miss at 10 p.m. ET to start the season. That's a thing.
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) August 11, 2015
If we’re going to make two teams play past midnight local time to satisfy television, would putting them in the middle of the day on Friday to satisfy television be markedly worse? ESPN is doing this for Georgia State, after all. If we’re going to see more of this, let’s go all the way with it.
Now, to Saturday:
CBS Sports Network will soon get its hands on a bowl broadcast for the first time. It didn’t need to be said that the network aspires to be more of a player on the college football scene, but that move up in the pecking order affirms it. So, if CBS SN wants to gain even more visibility for its product, why not compete against College GameDay and air games during the ESPN pregame show? Why not pursue what I call “Breakfast Football”?
On Saturday, CBS SN — which has been airing Navy football for several years — carries the Midshipmen’s opener against Colgate at noon Eastern time. Why not move that game to 11? CBS SN’s second scheduled game on Saturday is Florida Atlantic-Tulsa at 3:30 Eastern, which runs at the same time as the CBS (broadcast network) featured game between Louisville and Auburn in Atlanta. CBS SN could bump FAU-Tulsa to 2:30, so it can air for at least one hour indepedently of the CBS game more people will watch.
There’s more to be done here, though — that’s not all.
CBS, precisely because it generally airs only one SEC game per week, should give strong consideration to moving its SEC on CBS broadcast to 4:30 or 5 Eastern. Not only would this put SEC games in more of a stand-alone position; it would separate CBS inventory from CBS SN’s 3:30 games, which — if adjusted as recommended above — would actually start at 2:30 or even earlier if “Breakfast Football” is moved to 10:30 or 10 Eastern in the morning. All of the college football shown by CBS and CBS SN would exist more on an island, with CBS’s SEC crown jewel airing later in the day, early evening in the West.
This is more akin to what a college football schedule should look like: competitive times for non-ESPN outlets; staggered start times so that multiple networks under the same corporate umbrella compete less against each other; and featured games moving later into the afternoon, without the traffic jams that often occur in the 3:30 to 7 p.m. window.
This could be the wave of the future in college football television for non-ESPN networks. Let’s see if CBS and FS1 pursue this path.