By: Riley Day
December 14, 2023
Photo Credit: AP Photo
The 2023 iteration of “The Game”, which saw the number 3 ranked Michigan Wolverines host the number 2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at The Big House, was the most watched regular season college football game since 2011. The broadcast averaged over 19 million viewers and peaked at nearly 23 million viewers, an 11% increase since the previous year. It became the the most-watched college football game in the history of Fox Sports in the process. The result of the heavyweight clash had major implications on the college football landscape, as the winner of the game was virtually guaranteed a berth in the annual College Football Playoff (CFP), with the loser’s hopes all but dashed.
With the CFP field expanding to twelve teams in 2024, this season was expected to be the final time that only one Big Ten team would make the playoffs. At this time next year, both teams will likely have a strong shot at sneaking into the CFP field, regardless of the result of The Game. Further, Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh had been suspended for six out of twelve regular season games this season, at first for recruiting violations and then amid allegations of a “sign-stealing” scandal, a story which dominated national headlines for weeks on end during the thick of the team’s season. With all of that serving as a backdrop for one of the oldest, most historically relevant rivalries in college football, the 2023 edition of The Game was advertised as one of the most important college football games to ever be played, and it lived up to the billing. Michigan emerged as 30-24 victors, went on to win a predictable Big Ten Championship against Iowa, and are set to play Alabama at the Rose Bowl in the College Football Playoff Semifinal on January 1st, 2024.
Every college football fan in the country knew Ann Arbor was the place to be on the morning of November 25th, including the fan-favorite, crowd-centric pregame shows like ESPN’s College GameDay and Fox Sports Big Noon Kickoff. This left Michigan students (and everyone else in the local area invested in The Game) with a huge decision to make: would they have a better tailgate experience at GameDay or Big Noon?
College GameDay has been the premier college football pregame experience since it originally aired in 1993 from South Bend, Indiana ahead of Notre Dame’s game against Florida State. Boasting marquee sponsorships with Home Depot and Dr. Pepper, the ESPN College GameDay experience is tough to beat, and the show has long been the top dogs of the industry. As a result, nobody was surprised when GameDay claimed the premier location on Michigan’s campus ahead of their show. Conveniently located at Ferry Field, behind the IM sports building, and featuring a star-studded lineup of host Rece Davis, analysts Kirk Herbstreit (former Ohio State quarterback), Desmond Howard (former Michigan wide receiver and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner), former NFL punter and ESPN’s lead football personality Pat McAfee. To fulfill the show’s tradition of allowing a famous figure to serve as “guest picker”, former Michigan great and current Detroit Lions’ defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson repped his alma mater on set. The full production lineup on the show featured “The Kick 6 at 10” (commemorating the ten year anniversary of Auburn’s famous Iron Bowl win over archrivals Alabama), “Triple Coverage” (Desmond Howard sitting down with Michigan stars JJ McCarthy, Blake Corum, and Mike Sainristil), and Ryan McGee’s full report on rivalry week across the nation. Overall, College GameDay celebrated the final week of college football’s regular season in style.
Meanwhile, set up at Pioneer High School on West Stadium Boulevard, about a half-mile from the Big House, Fox Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff found it difficult to draw Michigan students away from the local on-campus set of College GameDay. In fact, bus routes run sparingly on game day, and parking is extremely limited for those with cars, bordering on impossible. However, Pioneer is a popular spot for older Michigan fans, offering ample parking and space to set up elaborate tailgates for lifelong season ticket holders. Hosted by the popular Rob Stone, and featuring former college football stars Mark Ingram, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn, as well as Ohio State’s famous former coach Urban Meyer, Fox rivals ESPN in terms of on-air talent.
According to an excellent feature written by Ben Portnoy for Sports Business Journal (SBJ), Fox’s strategy for Big Noon is to “take the tailgate— that energy and that atmosphere inside the stadium right before the game— right to kick.” Recently, the network has been focusing on getting more students to come by providing a livelier background for them to enjoy. Offering eye-catching giveaways, most notably white cowboy hats emblazoned with Big Noon Kickoff logos at State College prior to the Penn State vs. Michigan game, and lively music from a real DJ, their efforts seem to be working. Drawing 1.02 million viewers through the first ten weeks of the season (compared to 1.99 million for GameDay), Big Noon Kickoff -in just its second full season of production- is closing the gap on what has long been considered college football’s premier pregame show.