In 2017, the Big Ten will hold six football games on Friday nights. Three will be conference games, and three won’t be. They’ll all happen in September and October.
It’s a feature of the Big Ten’s new television agreements with ESPN and FOX, and the league’s slated to host six of these for each of the next six seasons, its TV channel, the Big Ten Network reported. The Chicago Tribune first reported the news Wednesday.
The Big Ten has traditionally not hosted Friday games. So, why the change? Here’s Big Ten senior associate commissioner for TV Mark Rudner, via BTN:
We have thought a lot about this. (The six Friday night games) represent about six percent of the total home games that we will have in any year over the next six years. We think it is a great opportunity for significant exposure and more favorable use of national platforms for football.
Sounds sensible enough.
But league members have already expressed varying degrees of displeasure.
Penn State announced almost immediately it wouldn’t host a Friday game:
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith also told ESPN the Buckeyes would play Friday night road games in September, but only host one during autumn break in October:
We don’t have classes on campus that Thursday or Friday, so operationally, it works because we’re not dealing with parking issues or classes or any of those conflicts that a game would get in the way of.
Our Ohio State blog wants the Buckeyes to stay away.
And Indiana AD Fred Glass told the network the Hoosiers would play on a Friday once every three years.
Wisconsin is only committing to hosting a game before Labor Day, if asked:
Michigan State’s in the same boat:
Michigan State has agreed to host one Friday night home game per year provided it is over Labor Day weekend.
— Spartan Football (@MSU_Football) November 2, 2016
The list of schools saying they won’t host or play Friday night games, or that they’ll only do it at specific times, suggests the league won’t fill Friday nights with games most people will actually want to watch. The slate could well be a dud.
Opposing these games makes sense for logistical and political reasons.
Logistically, if you’re a school near a big city (like Northwestern or Maryland), hosting a Friday night home game could cause gridlock.
If you’re a school with a huge stadium (like Penn State, Ohio State, or Michigan), you might rather not bring a small city onto your campus in the middle of a school day. You might rather not deny your fans a chance to tailgate on Saturday, which they love doing. Road teams might rather not travel earlier in the school week. All of that makes sense.
More significantly, Friday nights have been traditionally reserved for high school games. State sporting associations are already coming out against the idea.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association released a sweeping statement in opposition:
Friday night football remains one of the strongest and longest-standing traditions in high school athletics, and the MHSAA has fought since the start of this century to keep Friday nights sacred against the overstepping of college football and the damage televised Big Ten games are now expected to cause to attendance and media coverage of the sport at the high school level.
“We are saddened by this decision. We had hoped that the Big Ten Conference would stay above this. We think this cheapens the Big Ten brand,” Roberts said. “Fans won’t like this. Recruits won’t like this. And high school football coaches won’t like this.
The Illinois High School Football Association:
Friday nights belong to HS kids, local communities, and HS Football. A little Extra $ isn’t more important than what HS football provides
— IHSFCA (@IHSFCA1) November 2, 2016
The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association:
The WFCA does not support Big Ten’s decision to play college games on Friday nights. Further comment & info will be provided in coming days.
— WiFCA (@wifca) November 2, 2016
If high school coaches are unified in opposition to something, college football programs have little choice but to listen. Taking a stand against your own state’s high school coaches is a horrible recruiting strategy. Penn State and Wisconsin’s public name-checking of the high school cultures in their states is not an accident. Putting on a show of displeasure for high school coaches makes good sense.
These games probably won’t be fun. They’re not good for high schools, either.
Of course, high school football won’t fall into a death spiral because some state’s college team plays one or two Friday games a year, or every few years. There are already a couple of Friday games per week across the country (Big Ten teams have played on Fridays before), and high school football is still kicking.
But most high school programs only get five or so home games per year. Just one with depressed turnout could cause some financial harm, and high schools don’t have as much money as colleges to start. Friday night games in September and October mean recruits typically can’t visit for college games, because they’re busy playing.
High schools feed the college game. This might not be catastrophic for the high school game, but it can’t be anything but a net negative.