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When Colleges Fight with Friday Night Lights: A Cautionary Tale for Event Owners

9 Jan, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

If college football hasn’t made a New Year’s resolution yet, high school football has a suggestion: stop planning anything for Friday nights.

And college coaches, it seems, are in agreement.

Yet this year, once again, they are being foiled. According to the Chicago Tribune, Northwestern will play its biggest regular-season game of 2019 at home, on a Friday, under the lights. Ohio State will come to Ryan Field on Oct. 18 for a rematch of the Big Ten title game.

And neither side of the field is happy about it. “This one was out of our control,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters. “Didn’t get a vote on this. I understand why we’re doing this, but it does not make me happy. I still fundamentally believe that Fridays are for high school football.”

“I think it would be great if the Big Ten and all its member schools recognize the wonderful environment and sanctity that is Friday night football and how that feeds what they do,” Beau Rugg, director of officiating and sport management for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, told The Columbus Dispatch, in an article picked up by the Buckeye Extra.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he understands that sentiment.

“I don’t disregard that whatsoever,” he said. “There’s no question there’s collateral damage. It was a hard decision for us. I don’t want to disrespect that. There’s nothing I could say or even attempt to say that would help people feel better about that. But we had to do what was best for our league and for our student-athletes that we serve here in the Big Ten Conference.”

The problem of college conferences scheduling match-ups for Friday nights – traditionally reserved for high school football – was first reported on in 2017. In fact, it was so poorly received that the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the governing body for high school sports, passed a resolution on the matter.

After all, for many high school sports, whose schools not only enjoy but depend upon the buy-in from the local community, having attention siphoned away by larger organizations is problematic.

Large events, such as those at the college level (and the pro level), as well as tournaments in the local area that cross over and compete with times for scheduled events, put high schools in an awkward place. Increased traffic congestion, demand upon local restaurants and businesses on the nights of games and more, reduce high school sports to what has become pejoratively known as the ‘stepchild’ status.

 “The value of tradition cannot be overstated,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director. “Friday nights offer communities a traditional time and place to congregate and support their students. If a major college football game was scheduled in the area on a Friday night, it could affect attendance at the high school game or cause the game to be moved to another day. In addition, many of the Friday night college games are televised, which could result in lower attendance at high school contests nationwide. We believe retaining Friday nights for high school contests is a plus for colleges as well as they reap the benefits of healthy programs at the high school level.”

While in Rugg’s estimation, it too early to calculate the financial impact for high schools when they have to play on the same night as Ohio State, he noted the situation would be exacerbated if Ohio State played a Friday night home game.

“A home game would be brutal, especially for teams in this area, just with the traffic alone,” Rugg said.

Yahoo! Sports News noted that the conference is putting games on Friday nights so the Big Ten Network and other television partners have more live games in primetime. It’s advantageous to television because Thursday and Friday night games have become commonplace across college football – and the NFL has even hosted Thursday night football. That's not a surprise to the NFHS, which noted in an article in SDM that fewer high school events are receiving television coverage.

When the Big Ten announced in 2017 that it was moving some games to Fridays in 2018, two Northwestern games were selected. They got moved back to Saturdays not long after the Friday arrangements were announced and Northwestern made its unhappiness known to the league. Obviously, Big Ten looked upon the dissatisfaction as less than a permanent problem because it’s not just Northwestern and Ohio State that will be facing off under Friday night lights. Maryland and Penn State will also play on a Friday night in 2019. That game in College Park is set for Sept. 27. And the conference had three Friday night games outside of the opening and final weekends of the season in 2018.

So what is the take-away for event planners of travel sports (including football) that move into town for a weekend – are they part of the solution or part of the problem? Early dialogue, rather than a unilateral decision, seems to be the best approach. Planners of events that will take place on Fridays during the fall football season may want to discuss with the local sports commission whether their event will be held in the same area and at the same time as high school games.

If this is the case, event owners should find out whether this same place/same time booking stands to create problems for families going to either the football game or the travel sports event. For example, does the sports commission anticipate traffic or parking issues? How about congestion at local gathering spots afterwards?

If there will be problematic crossover, start now to help design workarounds. It is, after all, a way of being an asset to the community – not just in terms of economic impact, but as a partner to longstanding sports programs in the community.

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