Last weekend, BYU and Coastal Carolina played one of the season’s most memorable games on just 56 hours’ notice, spawning a series of hot takes about the need –or lack thereof– to schedule college football games years in advance (see: example a, example b, example c). But conversations with a handful of Division-I athletic directors indicated there are a multitude of financial, logistical and competitive reasons for schools to plan a half decade or more into the future.
Our Take: Financially speaking, Power Five athletic departments are incentivized to schedule games years down the line. Dave Heeke (athletic director, University of Arizona) explained that schools doing guarantee games “can probably lock them in for a little bit less [by booking them far in advance] than [they could] if they were to wait until the last minute.” Athletic departments want to avoid a situation where they are stuck scrambling for an opponent and those available to play can hold out for an outsized payout.
No one wants to be left without a dance partner on a given fall weekend, either. That’s of particular concern to Mario Moccia (athletic director, New Mexico State University), whose football program operates as an independent. Without the benefit of having eight or nine conference games to anchor the schedule, he said, the Aggies have “so many more slots to fill” than the average bowl subdivision school. The NM State financial model is also dependent on multiple guarantee games, which forces the program to schedule contests far in into the future. “We need to get the games when we can get them [for budgeting certainty],” Moccia said.
Attractive non-conference home games can also help collegiate football programs sell tickets and retain season-ticket holders, so it makes sense to schedule them when the opportunity arises. Having a high-profile opponent on a future schedule gives season-ticket holders a reason to remain committed if the team underperforms expectations, and should lead to increased sales as the game nears.
There is a fundraising aspect to scheduling games against college football’s most prominent programs, too. Remember, non-conference games are often scheduled as part of a home-and-home series, and fans get excited about taking trips to the sport’s most iconic cathedrals. Former Texas and ASU A.D. Steve Patterson said those rare opportunities give athletic departments a chance “to engage donors and develop relationships.”
Finances aside, there are logistical reasons to schedule games far into the future. It’s a huge endeavor to coordinate the football schedule with the academic calendar, having to balance games around parents’ weekend, homecoming, fall break and all of the other events that happen on a college campus (schools want to be sure students can attend games). College football programs also need to plan around community events. NC State has to manage around the nearby state fair or there won’t be hotel rooms available. Other schools have to avoid scheduling games during the first weekend of November (the official start of duck-hunting season). Even the biggest boosters have hobbies besides football.
Scheduling games years out enables schools to construct slates to match their on-field ambitions. Programs that hope to play for national titles can secure top-tier Power Five opponents, while those simply striving for bowl eligibility can lock in games they perceive to be against winnable competition. “It would be hard for a coach trying to build a program [to schedule on the fly],” Heeke said. “You’ve got to be four or five years out, just so you can control the program’s [destiny].” Of course, as Mike Hill (athletic director, University of North Carolina at Charlotte) reminded, “There are oftentimes games scheduled, where you’re expecting the opponent to be at a certain competitive level, and by the time the game comes that opponent has gotten a lot better or a lot worse.”
Coaches like to schedule games so they can be assured they will “have a presence in high school recruiting hotbeds,” Patterson said. The same could be said for school administrators. Playing games in locales where prospective students and alumni are located can only help the university.
Hill fully understands why games are scheduled as far out as they are. “We’ve all allowed –myself and Charlotte included– this sort of scheduling creep,” he said. “That goes decades out now, because of the feeling if we don’t get the game scheduled it won’t be [available] when the time comes.” But the UNC-Charlotte athletic director says college football as a whole can “do better” when it comes to scheduling. That includes booking more games between regional rivals. “We would all be better served by scheduling games that fans can drive to and are excited about,” he said. And scheduling on more of a one- to- three-year cycle (ala college basketball), would ensure “more matchups make sense at the time [of the game],” he added.
Fans would certainly welcome adding a “bracket-buster” weekend to the college football calendar. But the sport isn’t constructed to allow for teams to leave a week open. ACC and SEC schools look for guarantee games late in the season (think Alabama-Austin Peay in November 2022) and it’s unlikely teams within the Group of Five would be willing to forgo those lucrative opportunities to participate. There are also questions about whether schools, sponsors and season-ticket holders would be satisfied with a five-game home slate (someone might have to forfeit a home date). The majority of G5 teams want six home games. New Mexico State is among the exceptions. The school typically plays five home games, as it can make more with an extra buy-game on the road than it could with a sixth home game.