Say what you will about the Big Ten’s leadership, but they haven’t been afraid to take bold action. Some of those moves have turned out really well, like inviting Penn State and Nebraska, or starting the Big Ten Network. Others have invited a lot of criticism, like adding Rutgers, or saying stupid things like “we’ll move to D3 if athletes start getting paid.”
But most of the time, when they take a controversial stand, they’ve been smart enough to know that some blowback is coming.
But somehow, they missed the memo about Friday night football.
You may recall that last year, the Big Ten announced they’ll start to play some football games on Fridays. We wrote that this was a bad idea, and Ohio State shouldn’t participate. Other athletic departments followed suit, as did most fans on social media. A few seconds on Google will prove I was not the lone voice in the wilderness here.
But apparently, at a meeting with multiple state high school athletic associations earlier this week, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he wasn’t expecting the negative reaction. From our friends at Land of 10:
“The commissioner [Jim Delany] made the comment that Friday night games have been happening all across the country,” Tenopir, executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, told Land of 10 during Day One of the Big Ten Conference Joint Group Meetings.
“They did not expect the blowback that the Big Ten got on Friday nights.”
And by “blowback,” he means calls. Emails. Facebook comments. General social media hell.
The Big Ten countered that the shift to Fridays was to help give programs that don’t play in prime time as often, like a Minnesota or a Maryland, a shot at some additional exposure. But that’s cold comfort to high school athletics administrators, a move that literally anybody should have seen coming.
High school football, of course, is played on Friday nights across the country, and in most of Big Ten country, a flagship university also playing on a Friday night could depress attendance. And unlike Big Ten universities that get tens of millions of dollars in TV money, high schools actually need those gate receipts to balance budgets and pay for student equipment. Any cut is a threat.
Ohio did not send a representative to the meeting, but they’re against Friday night football too. And data suggests that Friday night games could hurt playoff attendance in Ohio too.
Given how important high school football is, culturally, to most of the Big Ten states, to say nothing about the health of their college football programs, this alone should be enough of a reason to oppose the move. But it also puts a big logistical burden on hosting schools (who now have to tangle with regular university traffic, which is so onerous that some schools have canceled classes over it), it robs teams of the ability to host athletes during the game, and it sucks for football fans who actually want to do other things on Friday nights so that they can justify watching 10 hours of football on Saturdays.
Delany is right that other schools have been playing on Fridays for years, but it’s not the same thing. Playing the occasional non-Saturday game is a necessary evil for programs who aren’t in major conferences and badly need the TV partnership or exposure. If you’re a fan of BYU, or Boise State, or a MAC school, you know that’s part of the deal. Same with even some power conferences, like the Pac-12 (which has struggled mightily with TV exposure) or ACC.
But the Big Ten is the most powerful, or second (behind the SEC), conference, and shouldn’t need to stoop to those levels, unless it’s simply a naked grab at more TV money; which this obviously is. And that’s frustrating, given that for all of the Big Ten’s problems, it certainly isn’t poor.
What is especially frustrating is that the Big Ten didn’t plan for this, or really see it coming. I don’t think Delany, or the rest of the Big Ten administrators, are dumb people. The league’s success, from financial to academic to athletic, isn’t by accident, and even though Delany can serve as some sort of super villain avatar for all that’s wrong in college sports, it isn’t completely deserved.
But they’re not great at PR or messaging their decisions. Hopefully, league officials listen to this feedback and learn from this episode, and don’t forget what makes their product, and this sport, so great to begin with. If they start to lose touch with their base fans and supporters, this entire operation could come tumbling down, especially if that TV fire hose starts to dry up a bit.