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College Football Embraces Thursday Night Showdowns

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College football has never had a Thursday night like this — though you can expect more of them in the future.

Two games with championship implications, matching four highly ranked teams.

No. 12 Oklahoma at No. 5 Baylor, with first place on the line in the Big 12, kicks off at about 7:30 EST on Fox Sports 1. Then, a few minutes after 9 p.m., comes No. 2 Oregon against No. 6 Stanford, the Pac-12 game of the year.

“A lot went into it to get us here and a lot had to break right,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions. “Now that it’s here, we’re so fired up.”

The folks over at Fox Sports are psyched, too. OU-Baylor is one of the biggest events the fledgling all-sports cable channel has shown since it went on the air last summer. It’s the type of game that Fox officials hope can accelerate the growth of FS1 and help build a regular audience.

“We like to call them tent-pole events. This is one,” said Bill Wanger, executive vice president of research and programming for Fox Sports.

Thursday night college football has been a staple on ESPN for more than two decades, with games regularly involving ranked teams. The Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East were among the first conferences to embrace the idea of playing televised games on Thursday nights as a way to shine a spotlight on their leagues.

ESPN’s most viewed Thursday night game is No. 3 Texas’ 49-39 victory against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving 2009. Second was USC-Oregon State in September 2008, a memorable upset of the top-ranked Trojans.

“We’ve always told our conference partners Thursday night is a big-time opportunity to gain exposure because everybody is watching,” Ben-Hanan said. “On Saturdays the games tend to wash over you. There’s something great about that too. Thursdays are different. Your teams have the stage to themselves. It becomes a really cool spotlight opportunity, and our partners have embraced it.”

The Pac-12 and Big 12 embraced it when they each signed multibillion dollar television rights contracts with ESPN and Fox.

The deal calls for each conference to make four games available to the networks for weekday broadcasts every season.

Pac-12 deputy commissioner Kevin Weiberg, who was once the commissioner of the Big 12, said the trend toward playing more night games is tied to conferences seeking “to unlock more value” in their television rights deals.

ESPN and Fox make recommendations on matchups they’d like to be made available, mindful of certain guidelines determined by each conference, and then they divvy up those games equally.

Weiberg said the Pac-12 officials didn’t think twice about playing what was potentially the conference’s most important game of the season on Thursday night.

“It was part of the normal process,” Weiberg said. “It was a game that had been requested and a game that fit.”

The NFL has now staked a claim to Thursday, too, with a weekly game on NFL Network. This week, Washington at Minnesota will kick off about an hour after the Sooners and Bears start, and about 30 minutes before Ducks-Cardinal begins.

Wanger and Ben-Hanan say they aren’t concerned about competing against the NFL. Football fans seem to have an insatiable appetite.

“Nobody is saying, `You know what? That’s too much football,”‘ Ben-Hanan said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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