Will the Guaranteed Rate Bowl Thrive in Earlier Time Slot?

The Guaranteed Rate Bowl will no longer be college football’s lone after dark bowl. Will the earlier start time attract a larger audience?

The Guaranteed Rate Bowl kicked off at 9 PM ET last season.
Source: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2024 Bowl Season will take a lot for some college football fans to get used to. The 12-team Playoff is the obvious new addition that rearranged the structure of the FBS postseason. Nevertheless, another change to the postseason may shock college football fans more.

For the first time since moving back to the ESPN family of networks in 2010, Phoenix's Guaranteed Rate Bowl at Chase Field will kick off earlier than 9 PM ET, with a 5:30 PM ET start on the day after Christmas. For nearly a decade and a half, the Insight-turned-Buffalo Wild Wings-turned-Cactus-turned Cheez-It-turned-Guaranteed Rate Bowl has been college football's "after dark" bowl season bonanza. Since 2010, all but three Guaranteed Rate Bowls kicked off at 10:00 PM ET or later, with the 2017, 2018, and 2023 games kicking off at 9 PM ET. (H/T to mattsarzsports.com for this data).

The late kickoff was suboptimal for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl's conference partners, the Big Ten and the Big 12. Not counting the recent PAC-12 acquisitions, who will not participate in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl until 2026, none of the conferences' 28 combined members reside in the Mountain Time Zone, while nine reside in the Eastern Time Zone. While the Guaranteed Rate Bowl had its own time slot, fanbases of participating teams had little incentive to stay up late to watch a game with hardly any national implications.

The ratings dropped slightly after the Guaranteed Rate Bowl ended its partnership with the PAC-12. The 2021 game between Minnesota (Central Time Zone) and West Virginia (Eastern Time Zone), the first under the current Big Ten-Big 12 agreement, had over 200,000 fewer viewers, 2.40 million than 2019's Air Force-Washington State matchup, which had 2.62 million viewers. The following year's Wisconsin-Oklahoma State matchup also failed to reach Air Force and Washington State's viewership figures with 2.56 million.

Evidence from last year shows the Guaranteed Rate Bowl's new 5:30 PM ET time slot on December 26 is better for the bowl. Dallas' First Responder Bowl preceded the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on the day after Christmas last year. More people viewed the First Responder Bowl (2.80 million) featuring Rice, whose most-viewed TV appearance only drew 215,000 viewers, and Texas State, who peaked at 43,000 viewers for their game against Louisiana, than the Guaranteed Rate Bowl between Kansas and Mountain West runner-up UNLV (2.69 million).

The only explanation is the time slot. The 5:30 PM ET time slot was better for viewers in the Central and Eastern time zones. Thursday Night Football likely brought about this change. Rather than pit the most attractive bowl game of the day against an NFL game with potential playoff implications, ESPN opted to pit last year's lowest-rated bowl, the 68 Ventures, a rare Group of Five Bowl *not* owned by ESPN, against Thursday Night Football.

The last daytime Guaranteed Rate Bowl drew significantly low ratings since it was televised on NFL Network. Still, this is not an indication that the bowl will struggle in its new daytime slot. NFL Network’s significantly smaller carriage at the time of the 2009 game contributed to its low 0.4 rating and 673,000 viewers, both lows for the 2009 bowl season.

The late kickoff did benefit traveling fans more than a 5:30 ET kickoff would. Fans of participating teams traveling to the Guaranteed Rate Bowl could realistically fly from their homes to Phoenix on the day of the game. However, the earlier start time could force some fans to spend Christmas away from home in Phoenix. Bowl organizers will likely take this potential drop in in-person attendance for the sake of higher TV ratings.

The 2024 season is one of new beginning for college football. This rings true for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl which could become a daytime fixture of Bowl Season should it pull solid ratings in its new time slot.