Scott D. Pierce: Utah, BYU will play more late-night football games
When it was announced that four of BYU's first six football games this fall, including three of the first four home games, will be played on Thursdays and Friday, there was some predictable jeering.
Real teams play on Saturday, some local Cougar-haters insisted in online comments.
"I would actually make the opposite case," said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN's vice president, programming and acquisitions. "When we talk to our conference partners, we always make a specific point about the power of playing those Thursday- and Friday-night games."
Thursdays have become the college equivalent of the ESPN's "Monday Night Football."
"We try to treat our Thursday-night football schedule the way we treat our Monday-night football schedule in the NFL," said Ben-Hanan. "We try to put premier games there top matchups."
Three of the Utes' first five games are on Thursday or Friday. Utah is hoping its Thursday game against USC ends up on ESPN. (It might.) The game at Utah State is on ESPN2.
Certainly, Thursday and Friday games aren't convenient for fans in the stands. Whether it's getting up for work the day after an 8:15 p.m. kickoff for Washington State or fighting traffic to Provo for a 6 p.m. game against Hawaii, it's a pain.
But in terms of TV coverage, it's a bonus. It's a compliment, not an insult.
"In the ACC, Florida State at Virginia Tech is a Thursday-night game this fall," Ben-Hanan said. "That's probably the best game in the entire conference, on paper."
And ESPN has made its Friday-night schedule a priority, attempting to build it into a second Thursday.
"We really try to treat those as premier opportunities," said Ben-Hanan. "From our perspective, we think that the ability to play on a night when no one else is playing, where the whole rest of the college football world has their eyes on you, is a big thing.
"And I think the ratings have borne that out over the years. A lot of memorable things that have happened on Thursday and Friday nights.
Just last year, Iowa State's astonishing upset of Oklahoma State which knocked OSU out of the BCS championship game was a Friday-night ESPN matchup.
"It ended up being one of the most important games of the season," Ben-Hanan said. "That was incredible."
And he pointed to BYU's come-from-behind win over Utah State, "another unbelievable Friday-night game."
Going forward, BYU and the Pac-12 will also share another role for ESPN. Look for more Saturday quadruple-headers, with games at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 or 8:15 p.m. MT. Various Pac-12 schools will join BYU to fill those late time slots.
"It's not going to be just Saturday night" for BYU, Ben-Hanan said. "They can be in other windows as well."
But, with seven years left in ESPN's contract with BYU, expect to see the Cougars playing plenty of Saturday-night games. And expect to see them opposite Pac-12 teams playing in the Pacific or Mountain time zones.
"We're lucky to have multiple networks, so between ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, we're in great position with BYU," said Ben-Hanan. And ESPN's new deal with the Pac-12 "complements what we're doing with BYU, it doesn't really displace them in any way."
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.
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