Just when you thought the straight money grabs by Jim Delany and the university presidents in the Big Ten Conference couldn’t get any worse (constant expansion talks, horrible Rutgers program invited in, football conference title game, 9 pm local time basketball tip-offs mid-week, I’ll stop before this turns into another column), the group decided to infringe on the Friday Night Lights tradition of high school and begin scheduling six games per year on Fridays.
Reaction from the key stakeholders in Wisconsin high school football was quick and in lock-step (you’ll hear that term again later in a bit different form).
“Disappointing” was the most common phrase used by the dozens of coaches I talked to from around Wisconsin, with “shame” and “money” high on the list as well. Middleton coach Tim Simon told me he would be canceling his Badgers season tickets after 20 years. WFCA Executive Director Dan Brunner called the Big Ten’s decision “disturbing” and “upsetting”. In fact, I’ve yet to find one coach who felt evenly remotely positive about this change.
All expressed concerns about what this would mean for their programs, especially the attendance and gate revenue. Other concerns include the availability of volunteers, fan support, travel problems, reduced media coverage and more, especially for those teams in the Madison area, who may look to re-schedule to Thursday (which would mean a third game before students are in school) or Saturday (a tough window for a game on a holiday weekend).
My friend JR Radcliffe of NOW Newspapers wrote a column last week arguing that the impact of the Friday Big Ten games would be minimal, if any, and I couldn’t disagree more, especially for those programs closer to Madison.
Regarding media coverage, JR argues that while preps will get less exposure in print newspapers, which he says hasn’t been the primary source of information in a long time, there can be more digital coverage. NOW Newspapers does the best job in the state by far, largely due to JR’s efforts, of providing digital-exclusive prep sports content. But they are the exception, not the rule. In fact, outside of some video content, few of the large dailies provide digital-only prep sports content. It’s actually more likely that a story or box scores don’t make it online and appear only in print.
Along with the newspaper coverage, many radio stations will be caught in a bind. Most of the Wisconsin Radio Network that carries the Badgers is also heavily involved in high school football. They are contractually obligated to carry the Wisconsin game (plus an hour or two of pre-game and post-game coverage), and unless they have an alternate station, will not be able to carry a high school game that evening.
DVR, live-streaming, smartphones, and other technology have lessened the impact of sporting event crossover, but this is not a positive for high school football and can only be a negative. The question that remains to be seen on September 1st next year, is just how bad it will be?
The Pac-12 has featured both Thursday and Friday night games in recent seasons. How is that going over?
Cal coach Sonny Dykes called it a “disaster.” USC hosted a Thursday night game on October 27th that featured the lowest home attendance at the Coliseum since 2002. Half-empty stands at Pac-12 and other conference stadiums on Friday nights have been a common sight.
Former Wisconsin State Journal prep sports editor Rob Hernandez recently moved to the San Diego area, where he took in a Friday night game between San Diego State and San Jose State a few weeks ago. The announced attendance of that game (25,613) was 23% lower than any other home game this season for the Aztecs. Perhaps the Big Ten behemoths will be immune from attendance dips, but I would doubt it.
Then again, the Friday night games have nothing to do with the fans that attend the games, it is all about the mighty TV money, which will reportedly send $2.64 billion to the conference over six years. That’s billion, with a “B”, and triples the league’s television revenue from the previous contract.
It’s not that the Big Ten needs to, it greeds to. I almost expect Delany to get up in front of the podium and quote Gordon Gecko: “Greed is good.”
It at least would have been honest, unlike the misleading comments from the conference during the initial announcement of the Friday night games last week. An article on BTN.com included the comment that, “...the Big Ten says the high schools within its footprint are in lock-step with the league on the move to Fridays….”
Big Ten senior associate commissioner for television administration Mark Rudner (wonder how much he gets from this deal?) went on to add that Delany had conversations with the executive directors of high school associations in all 11 states of Big Ten territory, claiming to have been in “good communication” with them.
It’s an interesting way to phrase not once talking to the leadership or executive directors of the coaches associations in the states, with the lone “good communication” coming when Delany called WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson two hours before the public announcement to tell the organization what the Big Ten would be doing. Delany and the conference made it seem they had been working with the state high schools on the Friday night plan for some time, knowing there’d be a PR hit coming, but in fact, they had not done anything more than a courtesy call a couple hours in advance.
Big Ten Friday night games do not help recruiting (what recruits can come to games?), fans in attendance, game atmosphere, tailgating, nor college student-athlete schedules. They do harm to the high school game with reduced attendance, media coverage, and “mind-share”.
So who does it help? The pocket-books of the Big Ten and the universities. It is a money-grab, and a blatant one at that, at the expense of the feeder system that supports big-time college football.
For the latest and most up to date football news and recruiting information, follow Travis on Twitter @travisWSN. Email story ideas, recruiting info, etc. to Travis at travis(at)wissports.net.