Early football games likely to stay
Sleep might be the only thing better than an ice cold beer at 8 a.m., but with the recent trend of UNC football games starting at 12:30 p.m., sleep will have to wait.
So far this season, four of the first five UNC football games have started at or before 12:30 p.m., and chances are, it’s going to stay that way.
“I know how many people would prefer later games,” said Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham. “My concern is primarily for the fans and students. We could have a better game day atmosphere if we play later in the day.”
Ken Haines, the CEO of Raycom Sports, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s official TV network, said the company airs at least two games per week.
“This year, by contract, the games must air no earlier than 12:30 on Raycom,” he said. “We can’t air the games later, and never have, because then they will run into network programming from CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX.”
Raycom also sub-licenses ACC games to Fox Sports South, which is not as limited with start times because the network only is concerned with airing professional or college sports later in the day.
Ultimately, ESPN makes all air-time decisions, regularly choosing top teams to attract wider viewership and boost ratings. Because UNC hasn’t been highly ranked, ESPN usually passes them off, Haines said.
“When you pay the most money, that’s the opportunity you get,” Haines said. “Given the contract, there’s really nothing we can do about it.”
He said the teams that are nationally ranked are almost always selected by ESPN, leaving Raycom with few choices for buzz-worthy games. Raycom’s contract with ESPN is set to last until 2027.
Cunningham shares Haines’ frustration.
He said he’s talked with Haines and has asked network executives to include more variety in who they select.
But Cunningham said he doesn’t have much influence in making a change.
He said he thinks the consistent 12:30 p.m. game times have had an adverse effect on attendance, and he fears this will continue.
Duke University’s Associate Director of Athletics Jon Jackson also said there are disadvantages of an early start time.
“Certainly kickoff times impact attendance. For students, a late afternoon or early evening start seems to be more attractive. Later kickoff times also allow alumni and fans who have to travel more time to get to the stadium on a Saturday.”
But Annabelle Myers, assistant athletics director at N.C. State University, doesn’t have the same concerns.
“Our fans and students come out regardless of time or TV designation,” she said. “We’ve had three complete sellouts at three different times, so I don’t think time of day is much of a factor.”
But when it comes to game start time, many fans and businesses alike prefer later games.
John Gorsuch, director of UNC’s Student Stores, said he prefers later kickoffs because it makes it better for fans and tailgating.
“It feels like our sales are better when there’s a later game though,” he said. “It’s a big social time, and when more people are on campus, they buy more. It goes like hyper-level during football weekends.”
Senior Lauren Foster said the games are too early.
“I can’t handle waking up at that time of day, especially on a Saturday because it’s my day to sleep in,” she said. “And if there’s a 12:30 game and you want to do stuff before it, you have to wake up at nine. Unless you’re really crazy and get up at seven.”
Junior Josh Mauney said he has had to make special arrangements to plan his game day experience.
“It’s harder to tailgate before games like I normally do, and I have to get up early because I live off campus,” he said.
In addition to the woes of waking up early, students like sophomore Kayla Corriher noted that an early start time seems to affect the pre-game atmosphere.
“I’d like to see more later games because that gives the whole fan base time to pump up for the game,” she said.
“It’s just more time to spend with your friends, have fun, get pumped for the game, and it just makes it a better experience.”
Despite the contractual drawbacks with the ACC, Rick Steinbacher, UNC’s senior associate athletic director for external communication, remains hopeful about maintaining strong attendance and an enhanced game day atmosphere.
He said athletics have come up with strategies to make the best of the early start times, such as moving Tar Heel Town closer to the stadium and incorporating a live band.
Carolina Fever has also started a student tailgate before the games, and there is an official DJ in the Tar Pit who spins music during warm-ups.
Steinbacher said ticket sales for the 6 p.m. game versus University of Miami are extremely strong, if not sold out, despite the game being during fall break.
He also hopes that game times don’t prevent students or fans from enjoying the football games.
“Like Coach Fedora always says, it only happens six or seven times a year,” he said. “Don’t let game time keep you from going to the game and having a good time with your friends.”
Corriher said despite the early games, she will continue to attend.
“Right now we only get what we deserve,” she said. “We’re not really a strong football conference yet. But whenever we develop as a stronger football conference, we will get better game times.”