This year's Aer Lingus Classic between Notre Dame and Navy in Dublin will have a new look this year as it will be a night game locally, with a 7:30 Dublin local time start, or 2:30 Eastern time here in the states.
The move is intriguing and a nighttime kickoff will make for an electric atmosphere with the game already sold out, but it is an unprecedented development in the broadcasting of college football game in Ireland.
Since the 2012 Notre Dame-Navy game was the first game in Ireland of the millennium, none of the four games in the Emerald Isle have started after 12:30 PM ET. Below is a table of the start times, networks, and ratings of the four Ireland games of this millennium:
Naturally, 2012 Notre Dame-Navy had the highest ratings of any of the morning kickoff times, with the low point being Boston College and Georgia Tech going unrated. These kickoff times alienated audiences in the Pacific and Mountain time zones, especially the Boston College-Georgia Tech game of 2016. The Ireland games are cool, but let's be honest, no one in California was going to wake up at 4:30 AM to watch two teams that went 3-9 the prior year.
Fox seemed to find the perfect formula for last year's game with a 12:30 Eastern time start time for Nebraska-Northwestern in Dublin. The game drew a 2.5 rating and 4.42 million viewers. Obviously, being the only game on one of the four over-the-air networks for the whole day helped this rating immensely, but this game still rated higher than any Notre Dame game on NBC, including their primetime game against Clemson on November 4, which drew a 1.8 rating and 3.22 million viewers.
This year, with the game in the traditional "Notre Dame afternoon time slot" of 2:30 ET, Notre Dame and Navy could exceed Nebraska and Northwestern's viewership from last year. If patterns from prior Week Zeroes persist, Notre Dame-Navy may be one of the only games on an over-the-air network all day. USC-San Jose State is the only candidate for an over-the-air slot but it will probably get a prime time slot to not compete with Notre Dame-Navy.
Whether Nebraska fans would like to admit it or not, Notre Dame is a more national brand than the Cornhuskers, giving much of the country more reason to watch. On top of that, Navy may have a more national following than Northwestern, further boosting the ratings.
Next year, Florida State and Georgia Tech will play in the Aer Lingus Classic, marking the first time ESPN has held the rights to an Ireland game since the 2016 Boston College-Georgia Tech game. The network will be watching this year's Notre Dame-Navy game closely. If Notre Dame-Navy kills the ratings this year, then Florida State-Georgia Tech could find itself in a 3 PM ET slot on ABC and serve as the lead-in for the MEAC-SWAC Challenge which has done well on prime-time the past two seasons.
Thankfully, the years of morning start times for Ireland games looks to be over. The only question that remains is whether the early or late afternoon start is better for networks airing games in Ireland. This year, Notre Dame-Navy looks to answer that question.