Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is a stickler for some traditions staying the same, but he has always been one open to new ideas. The Big Ten’s partnership with the Rose Bowl will likely stay in place for a long time, but Delany has seen the conference expand twice (Penn State, Nebraska) and ha a third expansion on the way this year (Rutgers and Maryland are on the way). Delany has also seen his conference launch the conference network craze. Now Delany and the Big Ten are caught up in the conversation about playing college football on Friday. Delany’s track record suggests it is a more realistic possibility than many may want to admit.
As first reported by Madison.com, Delany is surveying Big Ten members to see if Friday night football is something that would be embraced by the conference. He needs to know this before heading in to the next round of media rights negotiations. More on that later. The conference is also evaluating the possibility of playing night games in November.
The argument against Friday football is the same for the Big Ten as it would be for any of the other power conferences. Playing on Friday causes travel problems for a large number of fans who make the voyage to their favorite college football cathedrals for home games. This varies from school to school of course, and the turnout for games would likely vary from school to school as well. Schools with a rabid fan base would likely still turn in a decent attendance for a Friday night game in a Big Ten stadium, but asking fans to take off a day of work, or leave early, could lead to more empty seats than a Saturday afternoon game would offer.
Oh, but at least that Big Ten game would be on national television instead of shuffled in a crowded Saturday television line-up, right? Ultimately this is what the biggest benefit is for any conference trying to take a stake in Friday night football. There is a reason some of the other conferences and BYU have embraced playing in Friday nights. The Mountain West Conference has also embraced Friday nights to get out of the shadows of the other conferences like the Pac 12 and Big 12. Similarly, the MAC has taken advantage of other days of the week by playing games on Wednesdays. The Sun Belt Conference has done the same. But weeknight games is not off limits for the other conferences as well. Thursday night games have been a staple for Big 12, ACC and SEC schools over the years, although the Pac 12 is looking to cut back on those weeknight games in the future. It gives the schools playing in the game a chance to gain a little extra national exposure, even if there are a few extra empty seats.
So what carries more weight, the empty seats or the television exposure? What it all comes down to is what brings in more dollars, and that may actually benefit the Friday night games stance.
The Big Ten has a deal in place with ESPN through 2017 for regular season football games and with FOX Sports for the Big Ten championship game. Those contracts expire in 2017 and 2016, respectively. As all conference attempt to maximize the earnings on future media rights, adding a Friday night plan to the conversation could lead to more possibilities to make a buck. If you have learned nothing else from the past few years of media rights and conference realignment, it should be that when money talks, schools and conferences walk. Maybe the realignment environment has settled, but media rights will continue to drive a big price tag with a need to maximize the return investment.
The Big Ten could always use Friday nights to add to the Big Ten Network line-up, but with more sports networks available looking for live content (including NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network and FOX Sports 1) to compete with ESPN, there could always be some potential partners willing to explore the idea.
If common sense prevails, the Big Ten will stick to playing games on Saturdays and only Saturdays. If money trumps common sense, get ready to save up your vacation days Big Ten fans because you are going to need off on a Friday at some point.