Friday Night Follies
by Jim Alderson, 5/18/01
College football is coming to Friday nights, a development that has many aficionados of the high school game screaming bloody murder. The driving force, as usual, is ESPN, and its new contracts with the second-tier conferences, such as CUSA, the MAC, and whatever those two are out west, the WAC, I think, and the Mountain Something.
Those in charge of high school sports are vehement in their denunciation of what they view as a scheme to eliminate their monopoly of the Friday evening sports scene. Among the more amusing was the vocal chafing by Charlie Adams, the executive director of the North Carolina version of the VHSL, declaring that the televising of a single WAC game on a Friday night would sound the death knell for civilization as we know it. The resulting media coverage by those sportswriters whose paychecks are drawn from covering high school games caused East Carolina Athletic Director Mike Hamrick to publicly declare that the Pirates had no desire to play on Friday nights unless a game is scheduled, which one just happens to be.
In our state, Bob Lipper, august columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, weighed in, blasting colleges for their evil and greedy ways. One does wonder, how long will it be before Lipperís next column extolling the virtues of Title IX and demanding that colleges spend more money expanding athletic opportunities for women?
At first glance, televising college games on Friday nights does seem a pretty stupid thing to do, an athletic version of consuming oneís seed corn. Without high school sports and the college-bound athletes they produce, college athletics would rather quickly wither. Rare indeed is the college that awards its athletic grants in aid to something other than former high school players. And high schools have to pay their bills too, and few revenue streams exist for them other than gate receipts. High School administrators are to be expected to guard those monies like mother grizzlies defending their cubs.
College athletics directors could be expected to take a dim view if, say, NBC, whose last foray into televised football didnít work out so hot, were to announce plans to add Saturday NFL games to its existing professional inventory of Notre Dame telecasts. The high school guys are doing what they are paid to do, which is to protect their game. The question is, from what?
I graduated from Tunstall High School in 1970. In the intervening thirty-one years the number of Tech games I have attended in person is probably approaching two hundred, and you can throw in the occasional Duke, NC State and Wake Forest game that time (i.e.-a Tech open date) and distance (while it is generally lousy football, they are close by, and it is college football, kind of) favor. I have attended maybe a half-dozen pro games, mostly those involving the Carolina Panthers and free tickets. In the same time span, the number of high school football games graced by my presence might number five, and that is a generous estimate.
These days, my in-season Friday nights are spent, before home games, assembling what will be necessary for the game the next day and piling cooler and other tailgating tools of the trade in front of my door so tripping over them will cause me to remember to bring them the next morning as I rise at 5am in order to shower, dress and be charging out the door by my customary 6 am leaving-for-Tech time. On the Friday night before an away game, I can often be found in a bar discussing the next dayís Tech game. I am not going to be attending high school games whether a college one is on the tube or not. High school football seems to have survived quite nicely without my regular attendance these last three decades.
I freely admit to having done no scientific studies of who exactly attends high school football games, but my personal experience and anecdotal evidence suggests that the crowds are basically made up of persons with ties to the particular school, such as students, parents, relatives, girlfriends of players, etc., and those whose fondness and preference for the high school game in general mirrors my interest in Tech and college football.
While the only person I know who attends high school games on a weekly basis is my buddy and fellow Hokie Vip, the radio voice of the local George Washington Eagles, high school football does seem to be a pretty big deal. I have more than once made my way through Salem prior to a Spartans game; the amount of flags flying reminded me of Blacksburg on a game day Saturday morning. The Pulaski County Cougars are another team that seems to enjoy a huge and enthusiastic following. Are these fans really going to stay home on a Friday night to watch Wyoming play UNLV on the Deuce? I doubt it.
Lipper, perched atop that moral high ground he loves to occupy when preaching to those of us among the great unwashed, displayed his usual disdain for understatement and sounded the alarm of a potential Tech-Pittsburgh game played on a Friday night before a jam-packed Lane Stadium and the ESPN cameras. While executives of Disneyís sports division would no doubt salivate at the opportunity, that ainít gonna happen anytime soon (and if it did, I would certainly be there, but since I am making plans to attend this yearís game in Pittsburgh and plan to be traveling that Friday, high school attendance will not increase from the game being played on Saturday due to my presence).
The signed contracts to televise Friday games are with the lower-level non-BCS conferences starved for national exposure. Lipper does make the tip-of-the-iceberg-argument, but I seem to recall the very same argument being made a couple of decades ago that televising college football on an increasing basis would destroy the college gameís attendance as people quit going to local games and stayed home to observe the big boys. Stadium expansions seemingly everywhere have sure shot that argument to (hmm, family Web site), uh, heck. I suspect there is also a liberal Chicken Little element this time around, too. People who enjoy high school football will continue to attend the games, despite the competition from some compelling MAC contest, if they ever have one.
The conferences involved in the Friday night games are ones that desperately need the exposure, and the financial benefits which, while not large compared to what a prime time Saturday game brings, will help their cash-shy budgets. These schools have increasing athletic bills to pay also, in large part due to Lipperís beloved Title IX. You can bet ESPN is not going to replace one of its Saturday night games involving college football heavyweights with a Marshall game; this is one of the few opportunities available for these schools.
No school in the country has benefited as much from ESPN exposure these last few years than Tech. Frank Beamerís program has been given a mighty boost in rocketing up the college football pecking order from the large number of times they have played on ESPN, particularly the Thursday night games. This exposure has given Frank the means that he is now using in taking his recruiting to the national level. Few schools anywhere, and certainly none from the second-tier leagues, has received the ESPN exposure the Hokies have. Interestingly enough, among the benefits coming from playing on ESPN numerous times is an increase in demand to see games in person, such that an addition to the stadium is necessary to accommodate it.
As Tech has set about using ESPN to change its status in college football from that which not so long ago had us among the CUSAs and WACs of the world, their administrators have taken notice and desire a piece of the action. Friday night games are the piece that is available to them, and to what should be no oneís surprise, they are grabbing it. Economic necessity dictates they have to.
High school basketball has survived a glut of college and pro games televised every night of the week. I imagine high school football will survive Friday night televised college games, too. Although I am sure I will soon be reading on the TSLMB comments from people who say they will no longer be attending Friday night high school games in order to watch Akron play a Directional Michigan, somehow I doubt there will be many. High school administrators and everybody else should chill out.
Jim Alderson,who first made his mark with his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports. While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1. For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.