We’ve known for a little while that Fox is aiming hard at the hegemony of ESPN’s College GameDay in the college football pregame marketplace by launching a show with Rob Stone, Urban Meyer, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, and Brady Quinn this fall. Another sign that they are very serious about competing for numbers in this time slot is that, as Andrew Marchand and John Ourand have both reported, at upfronts today they announced their best Saturday game will air at noon eastern.
This is interesting on a number of levels. From a fan perspective, if you’re going to the game and do not have a long drive home you hate when it winds up being at noon or in the case of the central time zone 11. This heavily encroaches on tailgate time. Traditionally, the best games are typically aired at 3:30pm or in a nighttime window, though it should be noted that Ohio State vs. Michigan is a noon game every year.
Airing their best games at noon thus gives Fox less competition against other premier games, and as mentioned in the introduction it puts even more heat in the pregame battle. Fox wins the pregame battle on NFL Sundays in part because Terry Bradshaw is an especially difference-making personality — he won four Super Bowls, reminds the baby boomer football audience of halcyon days, has strong opinions, and is funny — and in part because it leads into a suite of games with NFC markets and franchises that skew more popular than CBS’s AFC package. (ESPN and NFL Network also have pregame shows, which do not lead into games.)
Another factor in the Fox vs. ESPN battle on the college football front is that Fox, a broadcast network, is in about 25-30 million more homes than ESPN, which is on cable.
Fox splits the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 with ESPN and ABC; if you’re interested in a primer on how these games get divvied up, Fox executive Michael Mulvihill explained on my podcast last December:
"As you know, we share rights with ESPN for three of the five power conferences [Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12]. The way that those rights are allocated is that the conferences themselves don’t decide what games will be on what network. That’s unlike the NFL, where there’s an NFL broadcasting department that puts the schedule together and they decide that Packers-Patriots is going to be on NBC and Cowboys-Eagles is going to be on Fox at 4:25. That’s a collaborative process, but in the end the NFL makes those decisions. In the college draft, the conferences put together a game schedule [with the dates] but then we and ESPN sit down and actually choose game windows in the Spring where we’ll say — and we have the number one pick in the Big Ten draft — we’re going to take the first selection on November 24th. We pick that date obviously with an eye toward it being Ohio State-Michigan, but we don’t literally take Ohio State-Michigan. We just take the right to have the first choice on November 24th. And then ESPN will choose the right to have the first choice on a week in September. And we’ll come back and use our first pick in the Big 12 to take the number one pick in the first week of October which will be Texas-Oklahoma. So you go through this pretty long process in the Spring where we determine who will have the first, second, third, fourth choice on any given Saturday, and then once we actually get to the season we designate those games 12 days out or in some cases six days out. So as the season goes on we’ll say, Okay we’re up to Week 7. We have the first pick. We’re going to use that first pick on Michigan-Michigan State. ESPN then has the second pick, and they [hypothetically] thought they were going to use it on Penn State-Iowa, but because events on the field are unpredictable they’re actually going to use it on Wisconsin-Northwestern. Because you’re drafting windows and not actual games, once you get to the season in progress and you’re surprised by which teams are better than you thought and which teams aren’t as good as you expected, you can adjust and make sure that you’re getting the best game in the best window. It’s a very complicated and very fluid process, but I think the benefit of it is because it’s as fluid as it is we’re able to react to events as they happen. It enables us to make sure that we’re putting the best games in the best possible windows. It should benefit the fan."
Anyways, my prediction is that ESPN wins this battle this season because viewer habits die hard, but we’ll see how it all plays out. That’s why they play the (pre)games.