The Mid-American and Sun Belt Conferences have found home on Tuesday and Wednesday nights
A 51-17 Toledo rout of Bowling Green 18 years ago would be of little historical consequence, but its placement on the calendar gives it relevance that resonates throughout college football each October and November. The Rockets' blowout win on that Wednesday night, Thanksgiving eve 2000, planted the seed for a phenomenon.
Tonight, Appalachian State travels to Arkansas State for a Sun Belt Conference showdown that marks an important milestone in the college football calendar: From now through the end of the regular season, every week features at least one game each Tuesday through Saturday. Football fans rejoice, and give credit to that Toledo-Bowling Green game. It's the first midweek, regular-season game of contemporary times, and something of a beta version for a feature that's come to be a defining trait of two Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.
Born of supply-and-demand, midweek football as it exists in 2018 is the collaborative efforts of the Sun Belt and Mid-American Conferences with ESPN. Tonight's game provides ESPN2 with inventory typically drawing around a half-million viewers who might not otherwise catch these conferences amid the sea of viewing options on a college football Saturday.
"It’s increased the visibility, name-recognition, and awareness of the program, quality of the program, quality of the institution," said Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC since 2009. "It provides that platform with teams who have really good stories to tell. It gives them the canvas to do that."
Capitalizing on Exposure
Some of the most electrifying artwork added to the mural of any college football season has been painted on the canvas of midweek football.
The Sun Belt began playing such games in 2008, debuting in spectacular fashion on ESPN2, when Middle Tennessee beat Florida Atlantic on a Hail Mary and two-point conversion.
One of tonight's participants, Arkansas State, has had its share of memorable moments in the midweek spotlight. In 2012, with Gus Malzahn on the Red Wolves sideline, running back Rocky Hayes broke a 57-yard touchdown run that prompted play-by-play telecaster Joe Tessitore to invoke the end of Rocky II " Yo, Adrian! I did it!"
Part of the allure, if not importance, when it comes to exposure in college football is the role it can play in recruiting. A national audience can include future players.
"I had the opportunity to see them play a couple times," said Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen, who transferred into the program from Oklahoma by way of Butler (Kan.) Community College. "I knew what kind of offense they ran, as far as spreading the ball around. I knew [former Arkansas State quarterback] Fredi [Knighten] was a pretty athletic guy. So, when I got the call from coach [Blake] Anderson, I definitely was familiar with the program."
Hansen's since left his own imprint on midweek lore. In one of his first starts at Arkansas State two seasons ago, Hansen found Omar Bayless for an eight-yard touchdown pass in the closing seconds, giving the Red Wolves an improbable, 27-26 win over Georgia Southern.
While the Sun Belt often begins each season's midweek slate, the MAC is most synonymous with the schedule. In this decade, the conference's presence on Tuesdays and Wednesdays gave rise to a universally recognized social media craze, and expanded so that now, every MAC game played in November occurs midweek.
The MAC has enjoyed similar successes as a result of the exposure. In a scenario similar to that of Arkansas State's Hansen, Eastern Michigan quarterback Tyler Wiegers kept tabs on players whom he knew from growing up in the MAC footprint, and was aware of the goings-on at his future home while on the team at Iowa.
"All throughout college I’ve watched as much football as I can," Wiegers said. "Any of those Wednesday games, I’d flip on the TV and watch whenever I could."
Dating back to that Thanksgiving eve game in 2000, the MAC has leveraged league willingness to try unique things into platforms for the conference. It was the first to play a conference championship on Friday night, a platform that put the turn-of-the-millennium Marshall Thundering Herd in the spotlight. Marshall and Toledo squared off in unforgettable shootouts in 2001 and '02, with Byron Leftwich exacting revenge in the latter for a heartbreaking loss the previous season.
Marshall's thrilling win in the 1999 MAC Championship Game, meanwhile, capped a perfect regular season. Huntington, West Virginia, was the talk of the college football world as one of the first outsiders to threaten the sport's power structure in a battle still being fought today.
And, in 1997, Herd wide receiver Randy Moss scored three touchdowns that put him at 25 on the campaign; enough to make him the all-time Div. I leader for scoring grabs in a season. The record-setting performance sent Moss to the 1997 Heisman Trophy presentation. He was the last MAC Heisman finalist until 2013, when Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch finished third among six finalists.
Lynch's reputation grew throughout a run to the Orange Bowl in the 2012 season, the first time a MAC program ever reached one of the former BCS bowls. His play in 2013 validated the buzz, reaching a head on a Wednesday night against Toledo. More than one million viewers tuned into the Nov. 20 contest and saw Lynch go 17-of-22 passing and rush for 161 yards with three touchdowns.
"I hesitate to deal with hypotheticals," Steinbrecher said, "But my sense of it is I have trouble believing Jordan would have had trouble getting the national exposure opportunities without our midweek platform."
Hail to the Hashtag
Jordan Lynch's run to the Heisman ceremony coincided with a boom in Twitter's popularity among college football fans and media. A Forbes examination of Twitter's impact on sports viewership, published in summer 2014, includes a study report that two-thirds of all fans used the platform as a "second screen" for viewing.
The instant connectivity to a national, if not global audience, turned into a de facto advertisement for midweek games. Some dispute exists over the official origins of the hashtag #MACtion — the first instance I could find using a "first tweet" app comes from 2010 and refers to a political group — but its presence in the college football lexicon is now ubiquitous.
"[Midweek telecasts are] linked with the concept of #MACtion: Kind of that high-flying, high-scoring football," Steinbrecher said. "It's really unique to have a conference that gets branded in such a way. Say #MACtion, and sports people know what you mean immediately. And it's something that really came up organically."
That exciting brand of football to which Steinbrecher alluded certainly aided in that organic growth process. In 2011, as the hashtag started gaining popularity, Toledo's 63-60 win over Western Michigan on Nov. 1 and a 35-31 thriller between Ohio and Temple the next night helped solidify #MACtion both in use and in concept.
The years since included Northern Illinois' road to the Orange Bowl, Lynch's Heisman candidacy, and Western Michigan becoming the first MAC program to land a New Year's Six bowl bid in the College Football Playoff era. #MACtion has been ingrained through the history. It's a popular enough concept that other conferences have followed with their own branded hashtags.
The Pac-12 has #Pac12AfterDark, while the Mountain West uses #MWLateNight, both references to the conference's typically late kickoff times. The American Athletic Conference uses #Pow6r to further its campaign to gain recognition as the sixth power conference. And with its midweek games tonight and beyond, expect to see no shortage of love for #FunBelt commiserate with Sun Belt games.
But it began with #MACtion.
The concept behind midweek itself isn't necessarily revolutionary, at its essence reflecting the motivations behind the original Thursday night football.
Still in its formative years — and capitalizing on the Supreme Court's decision in 1984 to allow university athletic departments to negotiate television deals — ESPN found a mutually beneficial formula with Thursday night telecasts. The young network added live content, while programs not typically in the national spotlight gained a prominent platform. To wit, the network's second Thursday telecast featured Cal State Fullerton hosting Tulsa. A season later, in what can be deemed an ancestor for the MAC's TV presence today, Eastern Michigan trounced Toledo.
ESPN expanded its Thursday night coverage to 10 weeks in 1992, and in the process, featured more games from programs in what are today called the power conferences. However, the league that most prominently planted its flag on Thursdays was the now football-defunct Big East.
It makes sense, then, that the Big East played some midweek games in the early 2000s. However, another conference helped map the blueprint for Tuesday and Wednesday nights in that same era.
"Midweek football, as a genre, really can be traced back to when Mike Slive as at Conference USA," Steinbrecher said. "That's really where it started."
C-USA games appeared on the ESPN networks on Tuesday nights in the early-half of the decade, a move engineered by the late ESPN executive Chuck Gerberg, and late conference commissioner Slive before he left for his legendary tenure at the SEC.
Those midweek C-USA games provided a platform to a program then on a considerable upswing: Louisville beat Memphis in a 2002 thriller on a Tuesday, and two years later, a Cardinals team that finished the season ranked in the top six routed TCU on a Wednesday.
C-USA abandoned midweek football in the mid-2000s. The MAC was already on board with the concept, but as Steinbrecher describes, was better positioned to move into the space. The Sun Belt also helped fill the void with its move to midweek in 2008.
ESPN and MAC agreed to a 13-year extension of their contract in 2014, which includes coverage of other sports beyond football. The network and the Sun Belt came to an agreement on an eight-year extension, announced last spring. Both contracts translate to plenty more midweek football in the years to come.
Football weekends traditionally had nice symmetry: Fridays belong to high schools, Saturdays are designated for the college game, and the NFL is king on Sunday. That isn't to imply other days of the week don't make sense.
Since its launch in 1970, the NFL's "Monday Night Football" has been an institution. It didn't take but five years for ESPN to expand Thursday nights in the college game, and the concept became popular enough at the pros horned in. The Friday night lights still shine on high schoolers across the country, but the overwhelming presence of the NFL on Thursday has made Friday more common in the college game.
For whatever reason, despite the MAC doing it for essentially two decades and the Sun Belt one, Tuesday and Wednesday are still viewed as something of an oddity.
"I never thought I'd be playing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," said Buffalo Bulls linebacker Chuck Harris, who added he didn't know about the midweek concept as a high schooler. "It's different."
Different comes with its own unique challenges in a sport that's predicated around routine.
"We practiced [on Sunday, Sept. 30]," Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield said, explaining the differences in game-week preparation. The Mountaineers played South Alabama on Sept. 29, but the typically off-day became a practice day.
Then, a technical "bye week" was nothing but.
"Wednesday, [we'll] start that like a Sunday for us, then go through our normal periods," he said, adding: "If it was up to the coaches, we'd probably play on Saturday every week. The league office brings us the schedule, and all we can do is go off of that."
Fans attending home games might sometimes have their own concerns. Tuesday and Wednesday being non-traditional nights for football requires some conditioning to get spectators accustomed to adjusting their schedules — and making such adjustments isn't always a realistic possibility.
"As a student, I found it difficult to attend if it wasn't a Thursday or Friday. Students just didn't get up for them," explained James Jimenez, an alum of MAC member Central Michigan and assistant site manager for Hustle Belt, SB Nation's Mid-American Conference blog. "Lots of extra-curricular clubs meet on weeknights and shine games would be on days where students were either exiting class or walking to one."
Likewise, work and family demands vary dramatically for most football fans in the middle of the week, compared to Saturday. A game kicking off at 8 p.m. local time can end around midnight, particularly when it features explosive offenses like those in the MAC and Sun Belt.
These factors combine to loom over the attendance figures of some programs in these conference, particularly the MAC. In 2017, four programs in the conference averaged fewer than 15,000 fans per home game. The threshold a program must meet for FBS membership is an average of 15,000 at least once every two years.
"I will never disagree with anybody [on challenges of midweek vs. Saturdays]," said Steinbrecher. "Because it’s different, it creates some challenges. We ask our fan bases, ‘Hey, for one or two home games a year, come out and support the program.’"
Steinbrecher said to make home attendance more attractive, the conference's TV partners — which includes CBS Sports Network via ESPN sublicense — were receptive to earlier kickoff times. The MAC now typically begins its midweek games between 6 and 7:30 p.m. local time. Similarly, the first Sun Belt midweek game of 2018 kicks off at 7 p.m. in Jonesboro.
What's more, the struggle between live attendance and TV demands isn't unique to conferences playing midweek. The aforementioned late kickoffs in the Pac-12 are a near-constant source of controversy out West, and even top-ranked Alabama has had coach Nick Saban recently chide students for failing to attend on Saturdays when the Crimson Tide are heavily favored.
A Saturday at home with no parking costs and the ability to watch any one of dozens of games can be an easier sell than a live blowout. Midweek games have the benefit of a football monopoly, which extends both to potential audiences in-person and at home.
And that home audience carries a lot of weight.
"From an alumni perspective, it is awesome," said Jimenez. "I can sit down and watch my alma mater on an actual TV channel that people get and pay attention to. I can talk online with people about games which matter to me. It's great for keeping up that spirit, in a sense."
He also reflects a common sentiment, that #MACtion plays a part in the fun, too: "It helps too when the games get nutty."
With last-second touchdowns, Hail Marys, high-scoring shootouts and Heisman moments, Sun Belt and MAC midweek football provides so much of what fans love about college football, and a couple extra nights to embrace it.