Children play a pickup game of touch football by the merchandise shop. Hot dogs and hamburgers sizzle on the grill. Ice cold beer chills in freezing coolers. The sound of the marching band practicing near Century Tower hums in the background. It seems like a regular Gator football game day – except for one major difference.
For the first time since Jan. 2, 1977, when the Gators lost to the Texas A&M Aggies in the Sun Bowl 37-14, a University of Florida football game was held on a Sunday.
The Gators were scheduled to face the Eastern Washington Eagles on Saturday. But, because of the threat of Hurricane Ian, the University Athletic Association, with the approval of Eastern Washington, decided on Sept. 27 to postpone the game by one day hoping for more favorable weather on game day.
But moving the game from Saturday to Sunday created a host of scheduling problems for thousands of fans.
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has been at maximum capacity for the first three home games of the season, with over 88,000 people in attendance at each game. But the move from Saturday to Sunday, as well as post-hurricane damage, meant that only 72,462 people made it to the game, according to floridagators.com.
“More than 37,000 season ticket holders come from outside Alachua County,” said UAA director of football communications Rick Hurtado, “and more than 47,000 fans who purchased a ticket for the Eastern Washington game are outside of Alachua County.”
The Florida Gators vs. Eastern Washington game was a well-anticipated Family Weekend event. In addition to fans planning to come from all over Florida, thousands had purchased tickets from out of the state. Those fans had planned to attend a Saturday game, but many could not make arrangements to attend on Sunday. Many fans who could not attend the rescheduled game tried to sell or give away their tickets on Facebook.
The flooding and road closures from the aftermath of Hurricane Ian also contributed to a drop in attendance. Hurtado said he understood attendance would be impacted by the hurricane.
Another irregular aspect of a Sunday game is the competition for TV viewership. The Gators weren’t just fighting on the gridiron, they were competing with the NFL and its massive Sunday viewership, too. The afternoon window on Week 3 saw an average of 13.8 million NFL viewers on FOX and 14.68 million viewers on CBS, according to Sports Media Watch. With 10 NFL games overlapping the Gators game, what would normally not be a scheduling conflict for UF ticket holders on Saturday became a huge issue on Sunday.
Many fans attending Sunday’s game revealed their divided loyalty in what they wore. Local high school student Ella Haas, who rocked an Aaron Rodgers jersey with a Florida Gators hat, was happy her team the Green Bay Packers started their Sunday game at 4:25 p.m.
“Here,” she said, “[I have the] Gator game at noon, [and then the] Packers game at 4:25. I think that honestly, it’s a great day.”
If both teams had been playing at the same time, she said she would have opted to watch the Packers game.
Tennessee Titans fan and Gainesville local Robert Sleeper faced an even tougher dilemma. He had tickets to the Gators game, but the Titans faced the Indianapolis Colts at 1 p.m., partly coinciding with the Gators’ noon start time. Unlike Haas, Sleeper said he kept his NFL fandom low-key so he could take in the live Gators game.
“I was still checking my phone,” said Sleeper, “but I was mostly paying attention [to the Gators game].”
Wearing his Titans shirt and hat, Sleeper said he enjoyed his first game in The Swamp. He only had one issue.
“I just wish it was a closer game,” he said.
Overall, many fans who were able to attend said they enjoyed the switch to a Sunday game.
“It was a unique experience being out there on an otherwise quiet day,” said UF student Max Kilman. “I love having Gators on Saturday and NFL on Sunday. But for one weekend, I’ll absolutely take it.”
Even with the odd circumstances, the Gators never wavered. They defeated Eastern Washington 52-17 to secure the program’s first win on a Sunday.