IOWA CITY, Iowa — One week before Iowa and Nebraska end their regular seasons against one another, neither school knows what time their game will kick off.
For many weeks, that’s a normal occurrence. Most, if not all, Division I football leagues have a few six-day windows in their media rights contracts so television networks can shuffle the best games in their most visible slots at the last minute. While it’s an inconvenience to many fans, it’s largely an annoyance rather than an issue.
That’s what ABC/ESPN elected to do with four of the seven Big Ten games during the final regular-season weekend. Michigan-Ohio State, as usual, was set well in advance at noon EST. Maryland-Rutgers and Indiana-Purdue also were tabbed early for noon EST on different networks. Three others — Michigan State-Penn State, Wisconsin-Minnesota and Northwestern-Illinois have yet to see a time or a network.
That leads us to Iowa-Nebraska. For the sixth consecutive season, the teams will battle on Black Friday. That’s a visible television window for both programs. The Friday game has long become a tradition for Nebraska, dating to 1990. Iowa co-opted it with the Cornhuskers’ Big Ten entry in 2011. The day and viewing window provides national exposure for both programs.
The first three years, game times were announced in early summer. In both 2014 and 2015, ABC exercised its 12-day time frame — in reality, 11 days — for Iowa-Nebraska. That was fair but not ideal for many fans traveling to the game. The time window doesn’t have any bearing on the teams. The visiting team, in this case Nebraska, flies to the game. They’ll play when they play.
“The kickoff stuff, that’s where we live; they tell us when they tell us,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And we make those adjustments. In a perfect world, you would set the best time for the fans, one o’clock kickoffs used to be the best for college football and those things are unheard of anymore. So with the good that comes out of it, you’ve got to live with the other part, the unknowns.”
But this year, the networks have until Sunday to make their time choice for Iowa-Nebraska. On a normal football weekend, a five-day window is aggravating for consumers. On a shortened holiday week, it’s wrong.
Iowa and Nebraska have fans who travel hundreds of miles for their home games. At Iowa, that’s a two-hour drive from Des Moines or five hours from Sioux City or Council Bluffs. Thousands of Nebraska fans will make a similar trek to Iowa City as well. We’re talking about a game that will seat 70,000 people, not half that number in Memphis or 70 percent of it at North Carolina.
You can just imagine the conversations now taking place in hundreds, if not thousands, of households in the Midwest over the last few weeks.
“Honey, should we eat Thanksgiving dinner at 1 or 6?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. If the game is at 11 Friday, we might need to drive over somewhere and stay the night before. But if it’s at 2:30, we could probably head over the day of the game.”
Then you figure in Black Friday shopping patterns, tailgating, congested highways and business patterns in a college town. Everything is put on hold until ABC/ESPN decides whether the game should air at 11 a.m. Central or mid-afternoon at 2:30 p.m.
Congratulations, television networks. In your indecisive quest for one more ratings point, you’re holding people’s Thanksgiving plans hostage, and the fans are the turkeys.