Why does college football play on Saturday, while the NFL plays on Sunday? The answer mainly involves tradition, television, and politics more than anything.
Why are college football games on Saturday?
Saturday was the best day for university athletics because it maximized revenues without hurting weekly classes. The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 made it law by preventing the NFL from televising live contests on Saturdays until the regular season ended mid-December.
Every fall and winter, it seems as if the pigskin dominates the American landscape. From fantasy leagues to jam-packed stadiums, not to mention the televised broadcasts, the love affair with the sport continues.
Modern technologies like Smartphones, iPads, TVs, and laptops continue to draw in new viewers, while sports programs like ESPN do their part to increase choices. Fans seem willing to pay more to see their favorite teams, as football ticket prices are higher than ever. But football wasn’t always the powerhouse it is today.
In the early years of television, there were real battles over money, schedules, and how best to garner fan support. So, how did it all begin? When was the decision made for college football to be typically played only on Saturdays?
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Why Is College Football on Saturday?
There are a variety of factors that went into the choice of the day when athletic events should be held. For college football games, the choice was an easy one to make.
The Day Proved Financially Viable
Most athletic programs made massive dollars from ticket sales at sold-out stadiums every weekend.
Many institutions used the generated revenues to maintain their campus buildings, pay teacher salaries, and fund other programs. In many ways, athletics became the lifeline many academic centers used to survive.
The Day Satisfied “Blue Laws”
Most institutions avoided Sunday due to local “blue laws” in their states and the religious affiliations and heritages on which they were founded.
Donors often saw athletics played on Sunday as a violation of God’s command to rest on the Sabbath, and universities did not want to violate any law or have donors drying up by playing.
The Day Kept the Learning Going
The choice also satisfied professors and presidents who insisted that athletics not be given preference over academia.
The schedule guaranteed that classes would be completed by Friday and over in time for students to be back on campus to attend Monday morning classes.
Television Starts a War
As more televisions appeared in family living rooms in the 1950s, several conferences saw the new medium as a direct rival to their way of life.
The fear was that TV showing live contests might hurt ticket sales and soften the revenue streams institutions were receiving.
TV Network executives were anxious to take advantage of the growing demand to broadcast live games, and they pushed hard for the rights to do so.
The NCAA resisted the trend, limiting exposure to only specific teams. (Some universities declined to compete in college games if television was involved, creating confusion).
While the NCAA moved quickly to limit the live exposure of these events, they still wanted to dabble in the new technology.
In 1951, the NCAA signed its first television contract with Westinghouse (parent company of NBC) so that they could limit the date and locations of each broadcast.
NBC created the first national tv schedule for the fall of ‘51, allowing viewers to watch a few games in scattered markets.
Yet, to guard their position, they also instituted blackout restrictions for 75 miles around the stadiums to protect attendance.
The first nationally televised game was aired by NBC on September 29, 1951, when Duke and the University of Pittsburgh faced one another. Months later, on January 1, 1952, the Rose Bowl was the first televised bowl to receive a national audience.
As the NFL realized the potential revenue from television broadcasts, they negotiated with broadcasters and scheduled their NFL games in direct conflict with the other football games.
In 1953, Dumont (an early television network) signed a contract with the NFL for a series of night broadcasts.
NBC paid over $100,000 for the rights to air the championship game in December 1955. A year later, CBS also signed a contract to begin televising across the country, ensuring the league would be competing with university athletic schedules.
The Courts and Congress Get In On The Action
The NCAA cried foul, declaring that competing with professional sports was unfair. When a judge ruled against the major networks and the NFL, finding they were violating antitrust laws, the NFL appealed to Congress.
The result was the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which issued an antitrust exemption to the league, allowing them to negotiate the sale of television “packages” for their games.
In addition, the law provided specific guidelines for when events would be played so that the broadcasting telecasts would not compete against one another.
Friday was reserved for local high school events. College games held onto their traditional day, and the Pros got Sunday. No broadcaster was allowed to show a live NFL contest on Saturdays from August through mid-December.
Essentially, the law cemented Sundays as the best day for playing pro football. While the law wasn’t perfect, most lawmakers thought that the bill was the best compromise possible.
The professional leagues got its antitrust exemption and Sundays, the NCAA kept its Saturday time slot, and high schools got their Friday night lights.
A Challenge In The Courts
For the next 23 years, the NCAA acted as the sole entity for handling contracts with television networks.
Even though 1,200 members are a part of the association, most of the money generated was divided by the five superconferences.
The feeling was that as long as the funds continued to line the coffers of the powerful NCAA and its favorites, the system was too great for anyone to challenge the inequity.
However, in the mid-80s, the NCAA was declared in violation of antitrust laws (they did not have an antitrust exemption but acted as they did). The University of Oklahoma filed suit for the right to negotiate its TV deals for athletics. The lawsuit went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the NCAA by a 7-2 margin.
The Court stripped the NCAA of its rights to negotiate broadcasting contracts and returned it to the individual schools.
The result was the deregulation of television and football. In addition, it increased the viewership of many local and regional contests, to the delight of college football fans everywhere.
Although the market for broadcasting rights dipped for a couple of years as the NCAA warned it would, revenues skyrocketed to record heights, turning college football games into the juggernaut it is today.
There is No End In Sight
Today, television broadcasts of the pigskin have become a multi-billion dollar entity with revenues that boggle the imagination.
Every few years, the networks enter into bidding wars to earn the television rights to broadcast a season.
With the football playoffs expanding to 12 teams in 2024, fans will likely tune in weekly to watch their favorite team. Bowl games like the Tiger Sun Bowl and Sugar Bowl will become more critical to the crowning of a national champion, which is great for the sport.
The recent realignments of conferences like the SEC with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma and the invitations to USC and UCLA to the Big Ten have set a wave of conference readjustments in motion.
Many universities are scrambling to find alignments that could generate more revenue for their programs in the chase for almighty dollars.
As greed continues to grow, prices will rise, not just for the broadcast rights but for ticket prices and concessions that fans pay at every game.
Regardless, it is clear fans will continue to enjoy the broadcasts that competing networks continue to provide and be glued to their devices to cheer on the sport they love.
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- Why College Football Games Are On Saturdays
- The choice of Saturdays as the best day for university sporting events is mandated by the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, preventing the professional leagues from televising pro events from August to the second Saturday in December.
- The SBA of 1961 protected Friday as the night for local high school contests.
- Revenues from television broadcasts generate hundreds of billions of dollars every year
- ESPN and ABC have the most significant television market share, including this year’s national championship, which saw Georgia defeat TCU by a score of 65 – 7.