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Friday Night Big Ten Football: Good Idea or Not?

The logistics of accommodating tens of thousands of fans at campus venues makes Friday night Big Ten football games a bad idea overall. That doesn't mean that the Big Ten should just limit themselves to Saturdays. Think outside the box: is there an opening on Sunday afternoons?

Eric Francis

Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal reports that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney is gauging the reaction to not only football games at night in November, but also football games on Friday night nights. BTN's Tom Dienhart is all in favor of it, suggesting that Friday night is an untapped market that the Big Ten could dominate:

The Big Ten is leaving a lot of money on the table sticking to a largely traditional TV scheduling format of Saturday games. The league should schedule a package of attractive Friday games, and put the product on the table for networks to bid on, and go from there.

It's always good to think outside-the-box and consider new ways to leverage the Big Ten's greatest assets. But the idea of college football outside of Saturday raises a lot of additional issues that need to be looked at, no matter how much money might be on the table. The biggest are the logistical issues that are unique to football.

There's no doubt in my mind that the actual on-the-field product could easily support a Friday night edition. Football teams regularly play on a short week of practice, and other conferences have been doing it for years. The Big Ten already did it once, moving a Michigan/Minnesota game to Friday night to accommodate a Saturday baseball playoff game at the Metrodome ten years ago. But Big Ten football is more than the on-the-field product. The pomp, circumstance, and tradition of college football is a main driver why college football attendance dwarfs that of the NFL. The NFL downsizes stadiums, blocking off seats with tarps. At the same time, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Michigan find ways to add seats.

And those bigger crowds present a unique dilemma when you think about moving games to a weeknight. Football games at a place like Nebraska envelop the whole campus, if not much of the city. It's not just thousands of fans that have to be accomodated, but tens of thousands. At Nebraska, Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest city in the state. It takes a lot of coordination to make that happen on a weekend.

How do you do it on a weeknight when school is in session?

The Big Ten recently recognized that they need to make sure that the fan's experience in the stadium is superior to the experience at home. Fans have more reasons than ever to stay home: every game is televised in HD, allowing you to enjoy the game from your climate controlled recliner and your choice of beverage. Nebraska is enhancing the stadium experience, adding WiFi and an improved sound system to make sure the stadium experience is as good as it can be.

But all that is for naught if the game becomes inaccessible. How do you get tens of thousands of fans onto campus while class is in session? How do you accommodate students who need to park on campus while also accommodating tailgaters? And what about those fans who have these annoying things like jobs and careers? At Nebraska, many fans drive a relatively long distance to get to the stadium. Do they have to take a vacation day so that a game can be televised on Friday night instead of Saturday? What about people who simply can't take vacation in that manner? Do you really want to limit the crowd to retired people who don't have to worry about working that day?

It's not just thousands of fans that have to be accomodated, but tens of thousands.

Recruitniks consider game day to be one of the most valuable tools that schools can use for recruiting. Friday night games are a complete surrender to recruiting. High school football is a national institution on Friday nights; no high school player will skip their game to take a recruiting visit. Not only will those players not be visiting, they won't be watching your team play.

I'm not saying that Friday night football should never happen. It might be a good option for a school like Indiana or Purdue to get some national visibility. Certainly Nebraska's Black Friday games against Colorado gave the Huskers a distinct time slot on the national stage. But for the most part, the downside of Friday Night Big Ten football far outweigh the upside.

Some point out that there could be Big Money involved. That may - or may not - be the case. I'd argue that the Big Ten already generates Big Money, and frankly, I don't think the additional revenue that Friday night football could provide is going to be meaningful. The Big Ten's television deals already pay significantly more than the other conference's new deals do. (Even the SEC's latest deals with CBS, ESPN, and the SEC Network are estimated to be worth $4 million a year less per school than the Big Ten's current contracts. That discrepancy will only grow once the current TV contracts expire in three years.)

The Big Ten's biggest issue with football isn't television, but rather the national perception of the strength of the conference. Moving Big Ten football games into timeslots traditionally occupied by MACtion doesn't solve that; in fact, it might actually serve to perpetuate that notion.

Want to think of new ways to expand Big Ten football? Don't look towards Friday night. Start with the opening weekend of the season. Over the years, college football gradually began playing games on Labor Day weekend, but they don't take full advantage of it. They fill Saturday, but only a handful of games are played the rest of the weekend. Why not fill the entire three day weekend with college football? Play a doubleheader on Sunday; the NFL doesn't start their season until a week later. Play another doubleheader on Monday; make the holiday weekend a festival full of football.

And why not go ahead and consider playing a weekly game on Sunday. Yes. Against the NFL. The NFL already decided to go up against college games on Thursday nights, and the college ratings haven't really suffered. Schedule a 4:30 pm kickoff each week. The NFL typically clears out their schedule in the late afternoon timeslot for just a couple of games, and those late afternoon games would be ending anyway just as the second half kicks off for a college game. Think of the opportunity there? Would NFL fans watch the highlight shows on ESPN and NBC, or switch over to the Big Ten Sunday game? And remember all those logistic concerns about Friday night games? They wouldn't apply to a late Sunday afternoon game. People still could go to church in the morning, and still have plenty of time to drive a couple of hours, tailgate, watch the game, and drive home - and still get to work the next morning after a full night's sleep.

Big Ten football on a Friday night is an idea that might have some value in some very limited circumstances. But if the Big Ten wants to be truly bold, think outside the box and try Sunday.