IOWA CITY, Iowa — Before the days of Big Ten football on FOX and on Fridays, prime-time games were announced months in advance with only slight tweaks for games that all began in the daylight.
But welcome to Big Ten football in 2017, when Saturday prime-time games have superseded the 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff as the gold standard.
It’s one of many television-related changes for the upcoming season. FOX and FS1 now are major partners, joining longtime stakeholder ABC/ESPN and league-owned BTN. With the new addition brings more prime-time football, including games on Friday night. The networks now can flex games into prime time, something not done previously.
It’s quite a change for the country’s oldest major sports conference.
“I think what we saw over the last 10 years is some institutions really have an appetite for that big-stage kind of environment,” said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten’s senior associate commissioner for television administration. “That big-stage atmosphere and TV obviously has a great appetite for prime-time football as well. We just tried to find a reasonable balance between what they wanted and we could provide.
“I think we worked a lot with our schools on their appetite for Friday night football, prime-time football, and it’s going to be a little bit different, obviously, for our fans. But we’ve struck the right balance, and hopefully we won’t cause too many disruptions in people’s experiences in the football season.”
Big Ten prime-time changes
Four years ago, the Big Ten’s media rights deals prevented November outdoor night games. In 2011, only 12 Big Ten games aired at night. This year, ABC/ESPN and FOX/FS1 will combine to show at least 15 prime-time games, with BTN broadcasting several more. The moratorium on November night outdoor football was lifted in 2014, and now teams can play night games through the regular-season finale.
Networks can flex games without a pre-announced time into any slot through the first weekend in November. That could include a noon, 3:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. ET kickoff. It’s a major change for fans who were used to night unveilings announced at least four months in advance.
“It’s new; it’s a challenge,” Rudner said. “But, ultimately, it has the support of the leadership of the conference. Listen, I think every other peer conference, every other FBS conference, has been doing prime-time selection on a 12-day pick. In fact, most, if not all, of the autonomy conferences allow for prime-time games on a six-day pick. We weren’t willing to go to six days. The 12-day pick exists only in Week No. 4 through Week No. 10.”
In the final three weeks of the season, teams can veto a potential night game with notice.
“If both institutions agree to allow that game to be played in prime time, they can be chosen in the 12-day selection process for prime time,” Rudner said. “But at any time up until that 12-day process, either one of those two institutions, for whatever reason, can take themselves off the watch list and that game is no longer available for prime time.”
Three years ago, Wisconsin and Minnesota met in a winner-take-all game that decided the West Division title. It aired at 3:30 p.m. ET. Now, if both schools agree, a network could select it for prime time.
“Why do we have those games on the watch lists? We want to capture the story of the conference race, the division races right up until the last moment,” Rudner said. “And if [Wisconsin] and Minnesota go into that game 8-0, then why wouldn’t we want that game in prime time with the winner going to the championship?”
Big Ten schedule changes with FOX
The Big Ten and FOX formed the Big Ten Network in 2007, with the league owning 51 percent and FOX owning 49 percent. FOX later gained controlling interest and picked up the standalone Big Ten football championship game in 2011.
The network long had its eye on Big Ten regular-season football and acquired first-tier rights this year for about $240 million per year, according to John Ourand of the SportsBusiness Journal. Ourand later reported ESPN kept up at $190 million per year.
The networks have a drafting process for the league’s games. FOX, ABC/ESPN and BTN each have first selection on different weeks. FOX will show the highly coveted Michigan-Ohio State finale this year.
“FOX has the No. 1 overall selection of all games for the season every year,” said Mike McComiskey, the Big Ten’s associate commissioner for technology who handles Big Ten football scheduling. “After that, it rotates through the top picks for a while through FOX and ESPN and then into BTN. They do a draft process in the spring where they now have each week of the season. They’re not actually picking games at that point, but they’re taking their slotted draft picks.
“There’s 95 games that fall under the Big Ten television contract this year, so they have one through 95 plotted out between the three networks. They’ve got the draft and they’ve drafted out each of those weeks as to who has the first, second, third and beyond picks of those weeks.”
Additionally, prime-time games can air concurrently on FOX and ABC/ESPN. So, for instance, when FOX broadcasts Notre Dame at Michigan State in prime time on Sept. 23, ABC or ESPN can show Penn State at Iowa at the same time.
Friday night football
The league’s polarizing entry into Friday night football was reshaped. The league still will select six games for Friday nights in 2018 and beyond, but only four will stay on Friday.
For the 2017 season, the Big Ten originally scheduled six Friday night prime-time games through the season’s first eight weekends. Northwestern was given two Friday Big Ten games, but the conference ultimately pulled them.
“That had more to do with our desire to try to mitigate against the impact of Friday night football moving forward,” Rudner said. “Those games are still going to be on ESPN, and they could still be televised on Saturday night. Really, it wasn’t an institutional decision to move them off.
“The six-game selection process for Friday night games is still going to continue, but only four of them are going to be on Friday nights.”
It’s likely two of the future four Friday night games will air on Labor Day weekend, McComiskey said.
Big Ten alters Black Friday
Nebraska and Iowa have played on Black Friday since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. For the first three seasons, kickoff was set five months in advance. In 2014 and 2015, ABC used the 12-day window for the Nebraska-Iowa time selection. Last year, ABC opted for the six-day window, which irritated fans of both teams. Played the day after Thanksgiving, the game time could alter holiday family plans.
This year, the league made the Nov. 24 game a standalone date rather than part of the Week 13 schedule. FOX selected the game for FS1, and kickoff was set for 3 p.m. CT.
“That’s mainly because that Friday offers challenges,” McComiskey said. “It’s difficult to get crews with Thanksgiving being around there and not knowing when they’re going to have to air something on Friday or not. That’s why it’s treated as a separate day so there’s some certainty for whichever network is going to be doing that game.”
Currently, Nebraska-Iowa is the only game slated for Black Friday. Any of the other rivalry games could shift to that Friday as well — even into prime time — if the schools agreed to do so.
“Nobody else has expressed any interest into moving into the Friday after Thanksgiving,” Rudner said.