The Gophers, pigeonholed by television contracts into 11 a.m. kickoffs for the past two decades, figure to be assigned drastically fewer morning starts under the Big Ten's renegotiated agreement with ABC and ESPN -- and the effect is already kicking in.
Non-conference home games against New Mexico State on Sept. 10 and Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 17 will kick off at 2:30 p.m. and be televised by BTN (the Big Ten Network's new name); the Sept. 24 game with North Dakota State will start at 6 p.m., also on BTN; and ABC will carry Nebraska's first conference visit to Minnesota on Oct. 22 at 2:30 p.m.
(The season-opener at USC will also kick off at 12:30 p.m. in the Los Angeles Coliseum, or 2:30 p.m. Central, on ABC.)
That means Minnesota knows that at least four of its seven home games this fall will kick off at 2:30 or later. The networks don't divvy up conference games until 7-10 days beforehand, but it's possible that Minnesota won't play a game before noon for the first time in more than a decade.
"Our member schools in the Central time zone have expressed their preference for later starts," said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner, who handles TV contracts. "I think there will be some measure of relief for them."
That's because, with Nebraska added to the Big Ten, the conference renegotiated its network contracts earlier this year. The new agreement eliminates the exclusive window that ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 enjoyed from 2:30-5:30 p.m. each Saturday, a blackout that prevented BTN from broadcasting a mid-afternoon game.
That restriction often forced Minnesota, infrequently chosen for the national broadcasts, into an 11 a.m. kickoff. The Gophers played three of their seven home games at that hour in 2010, plus two road games, and in 2009, TCF Bank Stadium's first season, five home games and seven Gopher games overall began before noon. Virtually no other conference routinely schedules morning kickoffs, but the Gophers have played at least three such games for the past five years.
BTN will continue to broadcast a game at 11 a.m. Central time each Saturday, and with the conference evenly split between members in the Eastern and Central time zones, it's unlikely that the early game will come from the Eastern zone, with a noon kickoff, every week. "We can't guarantee that (11 a.m. starts) will be eliminated," Rudner said. But allowing BTN to air games at 2:30 "should give us the flexibility to make those less frequent."