Thursday Night Lights

North Carolina developed a plan to enable its first ‘ESPN Thursday Night' home game this season.

This article is from the September 2009 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

Thursday Night Lights
North Carolina developed a plan to enable its first ‘ESPN Thursday Night' home game this season.

Inside Carolina Magazine
September, 2009
WORDS: Zach Read
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins, Getty Images

fter suffering through a number of down years, followers of Tar Heel football have enjoyed a recent Renaissance—a head coach with a proven track record now directs the program, the University has completed the first phase in a multi-phased renovation and expansion of Kenan Stadium—and the ESPN schedule is evidence that the national media has caught on.

Not only will the Tar Heels play a crucial game against division rival Virginia Tech, whose victory in Chapel Hill last season prevented the Tar Heels from playing in Tampa, they will also host Florida State, marking the first time Kenan Stadium will have welcomed ESPN crews on a Thursday night.

Athletic director Dick Baddour welcomes the idea of a Thursday night contest. "It's the opportunity to showcase the football program, the University," he said. "There's no conflict with other games. It's a tremendous opportunity to highlight what we're doing. We've seen how these Thursday nights have worked for other programs, so we're very excited about it. Plus, people will get a chance to hear the announcers discuss not just football, but also our University."

Dave Brown is vice president for programming at ESPN. He has long anticipated sending a crew to Chapel Hill for the network's spotlight game. "Well, we think all of it is great," Brown said. "Certainly with the quickly improving Carolina football program, that's something that caught our eye at first. For us, though, Chapel Hill is one of the most special places in the sport. So we have a team on the rise—a quality team—hosting its first Thursday night game. We couldn't be happier."

According to Brown, ESPN is very careful in making its Thursday night selections. "In terms of us, Thursday nights are the ‘Monday Night Football' of college football. It's the front porch of our schedule each and every week, and it leads into the weekend's games….We take Thursdays very seriously. All you need to do is look at the team we send to the Thursday games. When you put Chris Fowler, Jesse Palmer, Craig James, and Erin Andrews into the booth each Thursday, then that's a statement about how seriously we take it. And they love doing the games because of their importance."

Mike Kelley, ACC Associate Commissioner for Football, knows how desirable Thursday night slots are for the conference programs. "Last year UNC wanted the Rutgers exposure, and it worked out great for them," he said of North Carolina's Thursday night win in Piscataway, N.J. last season. "We know that Coach Davis and the football program have wanted to play on Thursdays. It's great for recruiting for a coach to say to recruits, ‘Watch us on Thursday night.'"

Kelley wasn't surprised to see that ESPN had hopes to televise the UNC-Florida State match-up. "ESPN had eyeballed FSU-UNC some time ago, so there's been a lot of communication back and forth," he said. "It's such a great showcase. You have so many eyeballs watching games—it draws at least a two-rating, and sometimes as high as a five. And it starts off the weekend and presents such a special gameday atmostphere. Personally, we think the game at Kenan will be a great atmosphere. It will be special because it will be the first time there."

The event at Kenan Stadium will be a welcome addition to the longstanding relationship between ESPN and the ACC. "The ACC has had more Thursday night games than any other conference since we began our Thursday broadcasts," Brown said. "It started with Georgia Tech, and then there's Virginia Tech, Miami, NC State, and recently Wake Forest. Last year it gave us great Thursdays, and this year we have another solid group of games. It's great to add one more stop to the Thursday package, from Chapel Hill. It's a great statement for the ACC and UNC."

But despite the excitement from the parties involved, the behind-the-scenes effort to host a Thursday night game in Chapel Hill wasn't easy. By now, fans are familiar with the issues that have obstructed Thursday football at Kenan Stadium. Baddour understands as well as anyone how difficult it can be to bring tens of thousands of people into the center of the University campus—a problem most universities aren't familiar with as stadiums often lie elsewhere on or off campus.

The behind-the-scenes effort to host a Thursday night game in Chapel Hill wasn't easy. By now, fans are familiar with the issues that have obstructed Thursday football at Kenan Stadium.

"For a long time and for a number of reasons it was not a good situation for the University," Baddour said. "One, the disruption to the campus would have been significant, especially to the academic community. With Kenan in the heart of campus, we wanted to be very respectful. There certainly were concerned faculty members who had been outspoken about not hosting Thursday night football. As most will remember, when I was faced with the problem, I negotiated taking our Thursday night games to Charlotte to play NC State, and ESPN used that as our home game. Second, the impact on the hospital is very important—we knew that access would be affected, and it's very important to have the hospital accessible. Third, logistically, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Could we vacate campus and then bring in 50,000 people?' And fourth, in so much as we could, we wanted to have games on campus when students were here."

With such a long list of hurdles, why then did UNC, which has stood firmly against football Thursdays, reconsider its position?

"A number of things changed," said Baddour. "One, when the NCAA allowed a 12th game, it stretched the season into Thanksgiving weekend, which means that every other year we'll have a game in Chapel Hill when the students aren't here. Our request every year has been for them not to schedule a game on fall break, because the students won't be here. But then when Butch came in and expressed a great deal of interest in a Thursday night game, we began to think about ways to make it happen. We asked ourselves, ‘Would it work on fall break?'"

After deliberating with University faculty and administration, including the Chancellor, hospital officials, and game day operations staff, the answer, in the end, was "Yes."

"Hosting on fall break first and foremost answers the question of disruption to academic life on campus, and it also answers the 12th game problem," Baddour said.

With an extra game on the schedule, the football program is able to host one contest when the students aren't in classes, and still have six home games for students to attend.

"The hospital part won't be easy, but we've got a really good task force dealing with these issues, with evacuating campus to get people in here," Baddour continued. "Parking lots will be available, however, much later than usual. We'll have parking we simply can't open for football, but we will do a really good job educating the public about what's available, and we'll encourage people to park and ride as much as possible."

Dave Brown and ESPN are thrilled that issues were resolved in a matter that satisfied all parties. "We just wanted to work with Dick Baddour, Larry Gallo, and Butch Davis and work this out," he said. "The day they used for the game was a day when the students were on break. They were able to work with the administration. For us, it's a tremendous addition to our Thursday night schedule. Of course, we've always wanted UNC. But you have to take the long term approach. We just have to keep talking to Dick Baddour and Larry Gallo. Really, they deserve all the credit in the world for making this happen. They were able to convince administration to do this, and we'd love to do more."

The ACC, which controls the television rights for the 12 teams, has long been aware of the obstacles at UNC, and Kelly expressed similar sentiments as Brown. "I know that at UNC they've had a problem because of the parking concerns and the concerns over classes, and that's what caused a lot of administrative concerns in the past," said Kelly. "They've had more hurdles to jump than most. But the combination of improving performance the last couple of years and the ability to solve some of those problems really helped us."

But it's not just the long awaited Thursday in Chapel Hill that has the conference excited for the expanded, season-long coverage it's about to receive. It's the overall improvement of the league, which was highly competitive in the 2008 season.

"The better the teams, the more it increases our overall exposure and the value of the package, and the more revenues we generate from the game," said Kelly. "Plus, we have a lot more flexibility in terms of helping ESPN get their games if our teams are doing well, and having good teams delivers the best ratings. It's good for us, good for television, and good for schools. A culture has developed around Thursday night as a special game. It helps recruiting and is great for the students….The great thing for the ACC is that we have a lot of teams competing."

"It's the opportunity to showcase the football program, the University. There's no conflict with other games. It's a tremendous opportunity to highlight what we're doing."

The selection of the Thursday schedule begins well in advance of the upcoming season. ESPN contacts the ACC and universities early in the process.

"We have to work on this early on, usually beginning in December for the Thursday night games, and then in January we crystallize our schedule," said Kelly. "ESPN wants to have the best games, and this usually isn't decided for sure until after the bowl season, when the network has had a chance to see how teams performed and what players or coaches are leaving. As part of our current television contract we have an obligation to televise five to six Thursday night games per year….These games really become the cornerstone for our conference season. They might say ‘Here are eight to 10 games, see if we can make these work.' Then I'll go back to the schools and discuss them with the athletic departments."

Whether the Tar Heels will host another Thursday night contest will depend on how well the October evening goes off. "Since the schools share television revenue, they all have to participate," said Kelly. "Some say every other year, some want to host every year. Whether or not we come back will depend a lot on what impact this has on campus. Is it something to consider every other year? Every few years? Every year? Because of the stress it puts on campus, some schools opt for every other year. Miami will pretty much do it every year. "

Brown is cognizant of the wait-and-see approach to future games. "Nobody knows better than I do how difficult it is to host a Thursday game," he said. "Our goal is to reach out to those interested and do what we can to make the experience a good one. After the game and into next year we'll see how UNC liked hosting, and we hope they'll want to do it again. But we know how hard it can be. If you look at it this year, we have Missouri hosting for the first time since 1992, I think; Oklahoma State for the first time since 1996; and this will be UNC's first. We hope schools will see it as a win-win."

Regardless of what happens next year or the year after, the Tar Heels are getting more attention these days, something that didn't seem likely three years ago, and when night falls and the lights shine on the Kenan field, fans of other teams will have no other choice but to tune in if they want their college football fix.

"The past couple of seasons, we know that the country enjoys watching Carolina football," Baddour said, but acknowledged that this isn't the first time Carolina's been considered a desirable catch. "They've been after us for years. John Swofford knew how difficult it was here, and when he heard about our willingness for the October game, he called and said, ‘You sure you'll be able to make this work?'"

With a lot of cooperation and hard work, the University intends to make it work—at least once. What they decide in the future is anybody's guess, but if they go by what the football program and its fans want, the Florida State game will be the first of many.

Zach Read is an assistant editor at UNC Press in Chapel Hill.

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