"You are looking LIVE at Ohio Stadium on a crisp fall Friday evening, as the #8 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes prepare to take on the Maryland Terrapins..."
A vision of things to come or just Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany's latest crazed fever dream? As much as many folks might wish it was the latter, the former statement might be all too plausible.
As you may have heard over the last day or so, the Big Ten is apparently considering the possibility of playing games regularly on Friday nights. The initial reaction from columnists, bloggers, and fans across Twitter was swift and unanimous: don't go there, Big Ten. Of course, an overwhelming negative reaction to an idea hasn't always stopped Delany & Co. in the past.
To be sure, a decision on playing games on Friday nights hasn't been made yet and even if such games do become a reality, they wouldn't become a presence on schedules for several years to come (the Big Ten's contract with ESPN/ABC for regular season games runs through 2017). But Delany rarely lets issues like this hit the public unless they're being legitimately discussed and seriously considered. So it's probably worth delving into the issue now.
The Big Ten has been quietly expanding out of its traditional Saturday afternoon scheduling for the past several years. Saturday night games used to be a rarity in the Big Ten; now almost every team plays under the lights at least once in September and October. Several Big Ten teams have opened the season on the Thursday night of the season-opening weekend (Minnesota and Indiana have done it the most, but even Ohio State played a game on the opening Thursday night within the last few years). Speaking of college football's opening week, Michigan State has staked out a claim on that Friday evening (Sparty has opened the season Friday night for three straight years now). And, as Iowa fans, we've grown accustomed to a regular Friday game, having become the regular opponent for Nebraska's traditional Black Friday game.
That said, all of those moves have been quite limited -- Saturday night games are still, after all, on Saturdays; Black Friday is a national holiday; and college football's opening weekend is increasingly evolving into a five-day football bonanaza to kick off the season. Playing games regularly on Friday nights would be a much more significant change to make.
Why would the Big Ten even consider playing games on Friday nights? The same reasons that teams wear dozens of uniforms or play almost anywhere at anytime and the same reasons that conferences have been riding the realignment merry-go-round for the last few years: television money and exposure. The Big Ten's current TV deals, with ESPN/ABC (for regular season games) and FOX (for the conference championship game), end in 2017 and 2016, respectively, so negotiations for their new deals will be heating up very shortly. In recent years, nearly every other league (RIP, Big East) has managed to hit the jackpot with their new TV deals, thanks to the (for now) insatiable demand for live sports programming among TV networks (as it remains one of the few things that a) draws large audiences and b) is watched live, including those all-important, network-sustaining commercials). The Big Ten expects to do the same with their new deal but thinks they might be able to sweeten the pot for their TV suitors even more if they had another package of games (on Friday nights) to offer them along with the standard Saturday games.
The exposure point becomes even more relevant when we remember that the Big Ten is expanding by two next season, adding Maryland and Rutgers to our midwestern club. The addition of two more teams means that there will be even more Big Ten games to try and fit onto the schedule. The current Big Ten schedule tries to jam almost every game into either an 11 AM CT kickoff or a 2:30 PM CT kickoff, with a smattering of Saturday evening kickoffs in September and October, as well as the aforementioned handful of non-Saturday games during the season. Playing 3-4 B1G games at the same time -- as happens routinely during the fall -- gives fans a smorgasbord of B1G action to choose from, but also limits the exposure of those B1G teams. If a fan chooses to watch Michigan-Penn State on a Saturday afternoon, he or she isn't able to watch Nebraska-Minnesota (for the most part), but maybe our hypothetical fan would if that game was in a different timeslot. Obviously, to a degree this problem is unmanageable -- at peak capacity during conference season, the Big Ten could have seven games to schedule and there just aren't seven different timeslots to choose from in order to let game have its own unique timeslot. (That problem is only exacerbated during non-conference play, when there could be as many as 14 games involving B1G teams to try and fit into the schedule.) But the Big Ten's logic is that opening up a Friday night would free up the schedule just a bit and give more exposure to the teams in the league.
But does it really make sense for the Big Ten to play games regularly on Friday nights? Are those potential benefits -- greater exposure and increased TV revenue -- worth the costs of Friday night games? For one thing, it's hard to say just how valuable that Friday night timeslot might be for the Big Ten. Friday night has the second-lowest number of TV viewers (Saturday night actually has the lowest, but college football has long been established as a Saturday tradition), since people tend to do things other than watch TV on Friday nights: go to the movies, go to dinner, or go to parties/bars. If one of the main reasons to play games on Friday nights is for TV viewership, does it make sense to play them on a night when TV viewership is almost at its lowest and when there isn't an established college football tradition (like there is on Saturdays)?
Playing games on Fridays also creates a host of travel issues for teams -- and the fans the who watch them. Players would miss more classes to play on Friday nights (most teams now travel on Fridays to prepare for a Saturday game, so teams would be traveling on Thursdays -- and missing class on Thursdays and Fridays -- to prepare for a Saturday game), which seems incongruous with the NCAA's continual chirping about players being student athletes. (Admittedly, this impact might be minimal -- if we're talking about one Friday night game a season, that's one additional Thursday of classes that players would be missing.)
The impact would be even more significant among fans. Big Ten games are an event for most teams in the conference -- you don't draw 80-100,000 fans just by having people wake up Saturday morning and decide to check out the game. Iowa draws over 70,000 fans to home games and a large percentage of those fans come from outside the local Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area, meaning that attending an Iowa game is a significant decision, one that requires a lot of planning and travel. It's one thing to do all that on a Saturday, when most people don't have to work. It's another thing entirely to do it on a Friday, when, y'know, most people do have to work.
The logistics of this Friday Night Football plan are also very murky. Who would play in these games? How often would teams play on Friday nights? Would Friday night games become the norm throughout the season; if so, we're talking about probably 13-14 games. Andy Baggot, the Wisconsin State Journal writer who first broke the news of the Big Ten's Friday night game thoughts, thought that games "might be once every three or four years." That would make the games rather infrequent and less of an intrusion on the traditional Saturday schedule for teams and fans.
But BTN's Tom Dienhart certainly makes it seem like a bigger package of games is being considered:
The kicker: EVERY Big Ten school has to take part. That means Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska have to play a Friday night home game. You can't make Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and the like play more than once at home on a Friday night. If the entire league is going to benefit from a Friday night package, then the entire league has to accommodate and be flexible.
Taken literally, that sounds like every Big Ten team would take a turn hosting a Friday night game during the season. (Although, logistically, that might not be possible since not every college football regular seasons lasts fourteen weeks; in a thirteen-week regular season, the league would either have to double-up on Friday night games for one week or have one team skip a Friday night home game.) Of course, home teams aren't just playing themselves -- they'd have to play another Big Ten team for several of those games (you might be able to get away with playing a non-conference opponent for a Friday night game in September, but October and November tend to be almost exclusively for conference games in the Big Ten), which means (obviously) some Big Ten teams might be playing two Friday night games: one at home and one on the road. And would existing Friday games -- like Michigan State's season opener or the Iowa-Nebraska game on Black Friday -- be grandfathered into this new schedule?
Finally, there's the 800 lb. gorilla when it comes to playing games on Friday nights in the fall: high school football games. High school football games are a staple of Friday nights across the country, but especially in the midwest and in the communities from which Big Ten schools draw their fans. Asking fans in Iowa or Wisconsin or Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania to choose between a high school game and an Iowa game or a Wisconsin game or an Ohio State isn't going to be easy -- and it's certainly not going to make your fans happy. (And, as Land Grant Holy Land noted, it would be an added burden for college coaches -- who could miss out on opportunities to get out and see recruits play -- and high school recruits -- who would have fewer opportunities to attend a game as part of a campus visit.)
BTN's Tom Dienhart suggested that if the Big Ten doesn't stake a claim to Friday nights (and the hypothetical cash pile waiting to be claimed there), that another league might... like the SEC and their brand-new, programming-hungry SEC Network. But that doesn't seem like the most compelling reason to make a change like this; money makes the world go 'round (and that statement is especially true in the TV revenue-beholden world of college football), but between the revenues generated by the Big Ten Network and the anticipated increase in TV rights fees that the Big Ten will command in their next round of negotiations (with or without Friday night games), it's not as if the Big Ten or its constituents is likely to be crying poverty anytime soon. I think we'd need to know a lot more about the exact logistics and plans for these theoretical Friday night games -- a handful of games is a far cry from a full slate of 13-14 Friday night games -- but for right now chasing a few extra dollars in TV revenue hardly seems worth the potential cost of said games.