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College Football Week 0: Money, Ratings, and the NCAA Football Schedule

How Penn State and Nebraska helped create the modern Week Zero...back in 1983.

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Since college football split into Division I-A and Division I-AA in 1978, the first week of the college football season has tended toward being a cupcake sampler platter, dotted with one or two “marquee” games as the rest of major-conference football feasts on FCS teams or MACrificial lambs.

On Saturday, though, the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators will meet in the Camping World Classic—though calling a two-year-old game a “Classic” feels wrong—as part of college football’s “Week 0” games. Kicking off a week before the rest of the season, these Week 0 games have made a resurgence in the last four years.

These games had existed in some form until 2004, as a dedicated “Kickoff Classic” (more on that in a second) gave way in 2002 to a shark-jumping series of early games. In 2003 #7 Kansas State dispatched Cal as San Jose State—for some reason—shut out Grambling. After a 24-13 win by #1 USC over Virginia Tech in 2004—a day which included a 49-0 Miami Hydroxide win over FCS Indiana State—the Week 0 game died.

That is, until 2016, when the California Golden Bears and Hawaii Warriors decided to play a Week 0 game in Sydney, Australia. Of course, Cal and Hawaii got paid to be at the game, as SBNation noted at the time. But while the game—an uncompetitive 51-31 rout—was not the best of college football by a long shot, and the play-by-play announcers weren’t even at the game, its .5 rating (about 782,000 viewers) for a game between a Mountain West also-ran and a middling Pac-12 club revealed that there was money to be made on a Week 0 game (per Sports Media Watch). It wasn’t just Week 1 games in neutral-site NFL stadiums anymore—college football, at almost any time, could profit.

In 2017 Sydney reprised its hosting duties, as Stanford put a 62-7 hurting on Rice. Across the country, though, a slate of mid-major games stumbled—BYU Cougars struggling with FCS Portland State outdrew the viewership for Stanford-Rice, while Colorado State pasting Oregon State and South Florida whipping San Jose State hardly moved the needle on tertiary sports networks. And in 2018, a series of four mid-majors played a wild set of games, as Hawaii outlasted Colorado State in an entertaining shootout, while Rice survived FCS Prairie View A&M and UMass rolled up an obscene number of yards and points on FCS Duquesne.

Now, though, in 2019, three of the four Week 0 teams are P5 players: Miami, Florida, and Arizona will all kick off at least five days before their FBS counterparts. And it’s no accident why.

The Kickoff Classic and the Origin of Week Zero

You’ll be stunned to learn that it was all about money.

The game that started it all was the 1983 Kickoff Classic, hosted at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, after four years of the Garden State Bowl proved to be a bad draw and a cold venue. (Can you imagine? A bowl game in the Northeast?! Thank God we’ve learned our lesson.) With its desire to host a warm-weather game, the New Jersey Sports Authority—responsible for the Garden State Bowl—made a perfect bedfellow for the NCAA.

Realizing that pitting some of college football’s best at the start of the season could be as big a draw as at its end, in January 1983 the NCAA—through a vote of the 106 I-A schools—approved a lead-in game to each college football season, much like the college basketball Tipoff Classic. (There used to be just one. I know.) Promising that there would be no rematch of bowl opponents or Big Ten-Pacific 10 pairing (because Rose Bowl!), NCAA officials clarified that “This will not be a national championship game,” but rather an extension of college football forward in the schedule to meet the public’s seemingly insatiable demand for football.

The NCAA, along with ABC, had run this formula with success three years prior. As a result of a brainstorming session from the Lake Placid Olympics, kicking that “we needed a big opening game,” in March 1980 the two agreed to move a marquee Southwest Conference matchup between Texas and Arkansas to a Labor Day kickoff (Austin American-Statesman, 3/21/80). Longhorns coach Fred Akers was happy to give Texas a break by moving the Arkansas game out of its October 18 slot after the Red River Rivalry game, and Arkansas coach Lou Holtz did not mind the break before a game against Houston. The #10 Longhorns, playing on ABC in front of 70,000 home fans, dispatched the #6 Razorbacks 23-17, and ABC gladly robbed Peter to pay Paul, sacrificing late-season ratings for a Week 0 bonanza (Santa Cruz Sentinel, 10/16/80).

The Kickoff Classic represented an early realization of how effectively the spectacle of college football could be institutionalized and monetized. There was no TV deal for the inaugural, which was syndicated by Katz Communications and picked up by 46 of the 50 major TV markets in the U.S. (representing—according to a wire report in the Danville News on June 25, 1983—175 stations covering 90% of U.S. television households), but the organizers intended to make use of the emerging cable sports networks for future iterations.

The 1983 Kickoff Classic was still lucrative, besides. As the New York Times noted in its coverage of the NCAA’s January 13, 1983 announcement:

“The Jersey authority has guaranteed $550,000 to each of the teams, $100,000 to the American Football Coaches Association, $75,000 to the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, and $350,000 to the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame for a total of $1,625,000 minimum payoff.”

The part about the NFF was important. According to the Morristown Daily Record:

“The Hall of Fame in Kings Island, Ohio, is $3.5 million in debt and will receive $350,000 from the game each year.”

To ensure that this could, in modern terms, build the NCAA’s brand, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority—effectively, the bowl selection committee—permitted the NCAA to have a say in the teams selected (wire report, Daily Register, Red Bank, NJ, 1/13/83). From Day One (or is it Week Zero?), the NCAA would get its say over which teams would get out on the front foot, both competitively and financially. The NCAA further assuaged the concerns of the other major bowl games, promising that the game would not be a national championship game, that it would count as an exempted regular-season game—not against their 11 permitted games, a “Hawaii Rule” before its time—and that it would not mirror the conference matchup for a major bowl game (Morristown Daily Record, 1/14/83).

Having grabbed the headlines, the Kickoff Classic cemented its status by securing the best teams. Listing the best of the best, like 1982’s season-ending #1 Penn State and #2 SMU, the Daily Record concluded that “SMU-Georgia appears the most likely matchup,” since Penn State-Georgia would be a bowl rematch, while Penn State would face Rutgers at Giants Stadium just five days after the scheduled Kickoff Classic. But, shockingly, by March 1983, the #1 Penn State and #2 Nebraska appeared to be the front-runners. Penn State, according to the Lincoln Star, was not “going to play in the game unless they could play Nebraska,” while Paterno had called the Huskers “the best team we faced all [1982]. Of all the teams we played, they’re the only one I’m not sure we’d beat again” (Asbury Park Press, 3/15/83). And so, of course, the game fell into place. Athlon and everyone else picked Penn State #1 and Nebraska #2 in their preseason polls, and the game had all the hype it needed (Lincoln Star, 6/15/83).

Much like the modern game, coaches professed the game would be a distraction. But money dominated the headlines. Coaches Tom Osborne and Joe Paterno claimed the game was an “inconvenience” (NYT, 12/5/83), yet Nebraska AD Bob Devaney, with Big Eight Conference clearance, appeared to suggest otherwise:

“I’m not satisfied with the money we’ll get. But it’ll be a good game for our program in terms of national exposure and recruiting.” (Lincoln Star, 3/12/83)

No fear of a loss. No fear of players being unready to play. It was exposure. It was recruiting. It was the Big Eight, Devaney admitted, “gambling on a good gate.”

And, when the dust settled, the game was indeed extremely lucrative. Guaranteed just over half a million dollars, Nebraska took home $867,751.23, while Penn State nabbed $797,251.22—the difference coming “based on a travel-reimbursement formula devised by the [NCAA],” the New York Times noted. The National Football Foundation also received $632,501.23, $350K of which would help pay the College Football Hall of Fame mortgage in Kings Island, Ohio (NYT, 11/16/83). That specificity—that maddeningly exact accounting by the Times, down to the penny—showed just how profitable, just how lucrative the game was; and, perhaps, a time when people were more committed to logging the NCAA’s graft in excruciating detail. Hell, even grifters wet their beaks, as fake Kickoff Classic tickets showed up in the Omaha-Lincoln area (Lincoln Star, 6/28/83).

Teams were lining up in December 1983—before they played their 1983 bowl games—to play the 1984 kick-off (NYT, 12/5/83). So much for an inconvenience. Money talks.

The Huskers’ 44-6 win over Penn State (and I encourage you to watch those highlights)—like most Week 0 wins—certainly set the narrative for the season. Despite moving their Giants Stadium game with Rutgers back to October 1, Penn State dropped the opener, then a home game to Cincinnati, then another home game to #13 Iowa. They still beat Rutgers—of course they did—36-25 in October, but ending the season with seven wins and a tie with Pitt in their last nine games. And Nebraska, rolling up 654 points, romped through the season, marching to 12-0 on the back of wins like their 84-13 pasting of Minnesota in Minneapolis, 69-19 rout of Colorado, and 67-13 annihilation of Kansas.

Then they played in the Orange Bowl against Miami-Florida Hurricanes. Something happened there. Not quite sure what all that’s about.

More enduring, though, was the long-term narrative for set by the 1983 Kickoff Classic by what we now call Power 5 conference football in the NCAA. Since then, early-season games have served to decide preseason contenders, set ticket-gate records, and roll up TV revenues—though in, perhaps, the opposite order that we’ve listed them there. The NCAA ended the “extra game” rule in 2002, making it “Hawaii-only,” and both the Kickoff Classic and Week 0 died by 2004.

But, like all things in college athletics when the Almighty Dollar is involved, cable networks and middling programs innovated until the big boys realized they could wet their beaks, too.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Miami and Florida kick off the FBS college football season tomorrow, and the winner—with a good enough showing—will undoubtedly vault their way into too-early Top 10 projections and the relentless, unceasing football football hype machine. There’s money, there’s hype, and there’s recruiting on a national platform.

But when Hurricanes-Gators ends, Arizona and Hawaii take the field a few thousand miles and half an ocean away. It’s a quaint throwback to 2016, a reminder of the oddity games that dragged Week 0 back into the imagination until ESPN, the NCAA, and the Power-5 powers that be realized, just as Bob Devaney did in 1983, that they weren’t “gambling” on a good payday.

Money talks.