How To Make Friday Games Not Suck
Friday games suck.
They disrupt the normal and perfect three-day balance of high school, college, and pro football. They strip teams of an off day and force players to miss class, which (surprisingly) some coaches actually care about. This all happens with the underlying motivation behind everything in college athletics: profit.
The Big Ten introduced a slate of six Friday games for the 2017 season in an effort to tap into a daypart without much competition other than a handful of Group of 5 games that might sometimes feature a random Top-25 team.
After two games last season were rejected due to pushback from teams, the Big Ten moved five games from Saturday to either Thursday or Friday for this season.
One of the five games is Penn State’s meeting with Illinois in Champaign this weekend, which will be the Nittany Lions’ first non-Saturday regular season game since 2000.
Penn State has been among the most vocal opponents to Friday night games. When the games were first introduced in 2016, Athletics quickly refused either to host one or play more than one on the road per season. And at different times in the year since the announcement of the rescheduled Penn State vs. Illinois game, James Franklin has attributed the adoption of these games to “greed,” bemoaned how it inconveniences his
Aside from gripes about how Friday games simply don’t work for Penn State (No Friday home games is a hill I will die on.), they have the opportunity to benefit football and increase fan engagement around the country…if they’re done the right way.
To the Big Ten’s credit, it has responded pretty well to backlash from teams like Penn State and Michigan, which have refused to play at home on Friday nights, and Northwestern, which protested its two Friday games scheduled last season.
But unfortunately, like most things in college football, there is reason to question whether there’s adequate regard for the fans, who spend the money, and the players, who generate the money.
Here are four ways that Jim Delany, the teams, and the television networks could have their cake and eat it too by using Friday games to the Big Ten’s advantage and aligning their motivations to be focused on what matters most in college sports: the players and the fans.
Save Friday games for the lower level teams.
This proposal isn’t a knock at teams like Rutgers, Indiana, and Illinois, or intended to treat them like the rejected bastard children they are. This is a genuine suggestion to help boost attendance and interest among fans — that is, if fan engagement truly is a concern for the Big Ten, not just dollar signs and TV deals.
It goes without saying more students would be inclined to attend an 8 p.m. game, compared to one at noon, regardless of what day it is. This is especially true at universities with low interest in football, unlike Penn State, where 106,528 fans turned out at Beaver Stadium last week for a noon game against Kent State, of all teams.
In fact, playing on a Friday would likely hurt Penn State’s attendance for a variety of reasons. But other universities don’t have the same consistent drawing power.
Although they’d be sacrificing a full day of tailgates, if universities with low interest in football played more games at convenient times, they could potentially get more students interested, which could one day lead to more alumni season ticket sales.
Additionally, in what other world could a game between Indiana and Minnesota be played in prime time? Friday games afford these lower echelon teams the opportunities to play under the lights and in the national spotlight, which could be important sells for coaches who struggle to compete with Franklin, Urban Meyer, and Jim Harbaugh on the recruiting trails.
And if both teams played competitively, then fans would be more inclined to stay in the stadium and watch on TV longer than say, if Penn State opens up a 20-point first half lead over Illinois this weekend. Even Penn State fans left when that happened last week.
The Big Ten did this for the most part last season. Of the six Friday games originally planned, only three teams finished in the Top 25. Wisconsin was the only Top-25 Big Ten team to actually play one. This season, with the exception of the opening weekend matchups, Penn State is the only ranked team out of four with a Friday night game.
Even more so, Illinois, which is 2-16 in conference during the last two seasons and in search of any way to make Illini football worthwhile, will play its third Friday night game in the last 12 months this weekend. Unsurprisingly, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith seemed the most receptive to the schedule at last year’s Big Ten Media Days. Or he might just be willing to try anything to switch it up at Illinois and get fans excited.
“I think you can try things and see how it works. We’ll see the type of impact that it has,” he said, compared to staunch opposition around the conference.
If anyone else has any ideas of how to make a midseason game between Illinois and Purdue interesting and something people would watch, please let me know.
Schedule them only in Week 1 and after bye weeks.
Franklin was candid while talking about the inconveniences of playing on Fridays: Players lose their off day and miss a day of class.
Having one less day of rest and recovery after a game could mean more injuries and fatigue. In an era where player safety is increasingly coming to the forefront, playing two games in six days must be at least somewhat of a concern.
The best way to circumvent this liability is to get rid of the compressed game weeks and limit Friday games to Week 1 and after byes.
Rutgers made this work last year with its “War Before the Shore” promotion for its Friday night game against Washington on Labor Day weekend before high school football began. Accordingly, Rutgers exceeded its average attendance by more than 1,000 fans and drew its second largest crowd of the season.
Similarly, Michigan State and Wisconsin opened their seasons on a Friday night this season. Both games had pre-Labor Day attendances greater than 73,000.
Schedule Friday games in metro areas.
Can you imagine what traffic would be like driving to State College on a Friday afternoon? The I-80 traffic on Friday evenings before Saturday games is already miserable. But the thought of 106,000 weekend trippers and day-commuters making their way to Happy Valley from every corner of Pennsylvania and its neighboring states is overwhelming.
Games like this would work better for teams in densely populated areas like Rutgers and Maryland, where most fans come from closer geographical areas. They can take a short car ride to the game and then go home, as opposed to fans who make a weekend reliving their glory days in State College and would need to leave early Friday afternoon to make it in time for kickoff.
This plan works even better if there aren’t 100,000 fans traveling to the game through the backwoods of Pennsylvania all at once.
Coordinate with local high school teams.
One of the main arguments against Friday games, especially by Big Ten coaches who have a strange reverence for the sanctity of Friday night lights, is their effect on local high school games.
If a college team is going to encroach on high school football’s territory, more should be done to collaborate with local teams to adjust their schedule so the games don’t conflict.
By scheduling games to directly compete with high school football, the Big Ten forces fans to choose which game to attend. In the case of high school players and their families, the Big Ten is losing a large portion of fans to attend its games and recruits who could be taking visits on what might be its only primetime action of the season and main recruiting spectacle.
Two other possibilities could be hosting showcase games on the days of and after the game and offering a (somehow NCAA compliant, of course) ticket deal to high school teams that move their games to Saturday.
Friday games are puzzling. They weren’t made for Penn State, but they can serve a purpose for teams that struggle to fill seats on a consistent basis and need exposure. The Big Ten seems to realize which teams benefit from playing on Fridays. But until its main focus shifts away from the money and instead to the players and fans, we’ll be in for a few weird and inconvenient road trips.
Just don’t come near Saturdays in Happy Valley.
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