If you ask me what my favorite all-time tv show is, I’ll happily say Friday Night Lights. I’ve watched the acclaimed NBC drama three times over. I can’t get enough of Coach Taylor and Smash Williams, but if there’s anything I learned from my obsession with the show is that Friday nights are for high school football and high school football alone.
Over the past several years, college football teams have started playing games from Tuesday to Saturday. These weekday games have several uses. First, these games give mid-major conference teams national television time that they often miss out on most Saturdays. Second, they help the NCAA grow the college football brand, while padding its bank accounts. College football starts before the NFL and as a result, college football likes have games over several days the first couple weeks of the season.
This being said, you rarely see a Power 5 conference team play on anything other than Saturdays, though the 2016 ACC schedule did include five Thursday night games. So when the Big Ten announced last week that they will have six Friday night games throughout the season until at least 2022, many were surprised and even more were upset. Count Pat Fitzgerald and several other coaches in the latter category.
Here’s the thing: this is a money grab, pure and undisguised. This is the Big Ten. EVERY team, even bad teams (I’m looking at you, Rutgers), gets national television coverage in the Big Ten. Northwestern, a smaller market and a team that, hence, usually plays its games at 11 am on BTN, found itself on the ABC family of networks the past two weeks in its games against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
For Power 5 conference teams, the national spotlight is not a scarcity, but a commodity. But for Northwestern, playing in this new setting could prove disastrous.
Michigan and Penn State have wisely refused to participate in Friday night games.
So the fact that the Northwestern Athletic Department thinks that Friday night football games will actually help this program is a questionable at best. First off, NU doesn’t need more time in the national spotlight. Not only does it receive a very fair amount already, but giving the Wildcats more air time won’t increase attendance nor will it really increase the viewership of the team, which I assume is NU’s hope. On Friday nights, people are rarely going to sit at home and watch Northwestern football instead of partaking in the bevy of activities that exist, high school football included.
And while one could legitimately argue that NU experiences higher student attendance at night games, the overall attendance numbers from the past couple of years don’t support the claim. Last year, the average Ryan Field crowd was 35,366. The attendance of the one game that was played under the lights last year (Ball State) fell well short of the season average at 30,107. In the six home games the Wildcats have had this season, the two night games (Duke, Nebraska) rank fourth and second respectively attendance-wise. Additionally, it is foolish to believe that just because a game is at night that NU students will automatically go. After a grueling week of class or midterms (reminder: both of these games take place during dreaded midterm season), the last thing many NU students will want to do is tailgate and then go watch football for four hours. On top of that, many alumni and parents fly or drive in on Friday to watch the game on Saturday. And the local fanbase will make these games even less of a priority.
But where NU suffers the most from this new arrangement is from the logistics of it all. Next year, the Wildcats are scheduled for two Friday night games: the first, October 13 at Maryland and then the second 14 days later on the 27th, when NU hosts Michigan State. Now these games with a bye in between might not have been quite as bad, but Fitzgerald’s team will have no such luck. On October 21, the Wildcats will host arch rival Iowa, meaning that the team will play three games in 14 days. With no bye week to regain its strength, the month of October — historically Fitzgerald’s worst, though this year bucked the trend — could yet again be another rough one for the program.
Not surprisingly, Fitzgerald was none too pleased about the news.
“I have great concern about missing more class time than we already do,” Fitzgerald said. “My first concern is health, safety and well-being. If you come on a bye, great. I think a short week is a mistake. The opener, I’m fine with a non-traditional day, but I’d prefer to keep Big Ten football on Saturdays.”
But let’s not forget about the other victim of this decision: high school football. College football fans shouldn’t have to decide whether or not to support their alma mater or watch their kids play. The Tim Rigginses and Vince Howardses of the world shouldn’t be denied their spotlight. Plus, for Northwestern, it creates a logistical logjam trying to get recruits to games.
From College Gameday wake-up calls to Pac-12 action that stretches well into the wee Sunday morning hours, college already owns a day of the week in this country. For the sake of student-athletes at both the levels, college programs as a whole and fans, it doesn’t need another.