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Any Given Weekday

September 1, 2010

Midweek college football games have become commonplace in recent years, but like so many aspects of college sports, the scheduling of games separates the haves from the have-nots. While many teams from less-established conferences play such games because it gives them the chance to grab the national television spotlight — and the exposure and money that come with it — teams that have the clout to grab the coveted Saturday TV slots are increasingly resisting the weekday games for academic and logistical reasons.

When ESPN began broadcasting Thursday night college football games in 1991, they were mostly a novelty, and it was hard to schedule matchups between marquee teams. Now, nearly two decades later, the Thursday night games have taken on all the appeal of NFL Monday Night Football and teams from major conferences regularly make appearances.

Friday nights, long the bastion of high school football, began featuring college games in 2001, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association deregulated its bylaws for football television contracts, which included a Friday night game ban. Since then, nationally televised college football games have also crept into the other weekdays.

By and large, these weeknight games are still the bastion of teams from less-established leagues, though, as seen in the table below. For instance, 11 of 12 teams from the Mid-American Conference play a midweek football game this season. By contrast, only three teams from the 11-member Big Ten Conference play midweek games.

Conference # of Football Teams with Multiple Midweek (Tuesday-Thursday) Games
Mid-American 8
Conference USA 3
Big East 3
Big 12 2
Atlantic Coast 2
Sun Belt 1
Pacific 10 1

The Weeknight Warriors

Those conferences whose teams tend to play more weekday football contests defend their decisions to do so, arguing that the national exposure brought to their institutions by the broadcasts far outweighs any academic or logistical concerns. Faculty critics, though they have quieted on the issue in recent years, are still not pleased with the weekday play.

“You would generally find among [faculty athletic representatives] in the FBS and among [faculty athletic representatives] more generally, no happiness with games played during the week,” said Josephine Potuto, chair of the Division IA Faculty Athletics Representatives and constitutional law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln — which, incidentally, plays one Thursday night game this season. “It’s disruptive to the academic schedule of athletics, particularly if they’re away from home. Also, it’s more difficult for faculty, with parking spots roped off and everything, to get things done.”

Still, Potuto said faculty uproar over weeknight football games does not come up much anymore. It is not that there is no longer concern about their impact; there are just more pressing matters for critics of college sports, she said. And compared to athletes in other sports, she added, football players do not miss nearly as much class.

“As a matter of my own preference, I don’t think we need to have them,” Potuto said. “If you could step back and say, 'Would we schedule the same way if our games weren’t being televised?,' no professor or president would say we’d schedule the way we do now.”

Teams with Multiple Midweek (Tuesday-Thursday) Games Conference Total # of Midweek Games
Pittsburgh Big East 3
Alabama-Birmingham Conference USA 3
Miami (OH) Mid-American 3
Temple Mid-American 3
Middle Tennessee State Sun Belt 3
Miami (FL) Atlantic Coast 2
North Carolina State Atlantic Coast 2
Kansas State Big 12 2
Texas A&M Big 12 2
Rutgers Big East 2
South Florida Big East 2
Marshall Conference USA 2
Central Florida Conference USA 2
Bowling Green Mid-American 2
Buffalo Mid-American 2
Central Michigan Mid-American 2
Northern Illinois Mid-American 2
Ohio Mid-American 2
Toledo Mid-American 2
UCLA Pacific 10 2

Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, which plays the most midweek games of any league in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), pointed to the academic records of his league’s football squads as evidence that weeknight game have not affected their classroom performance. Most of his conference's teams have seen their Academic Progress Rate — an NCAA measure of a team’s academic performance — increase over the past five years since these games were introduced. Still, only four of its teams score above the FBS average for football teams.

“We acknowledge we’re unlikely to get the Saturday 1 p.m. kickoff time on national television,” Steinbrecher said. “So there’s an accommodation that’s been made here in the past three to five years as the conference continues to grow. It’s become more of the norm because we’re doing it. It hasn’t injured student-athletes from an academic perspective, and it’s a wonderful opportunity. I like to think we’ve worked through the issue and have found it can work. Still, that’s not to say that there aren't people who occasionally have concerns.”

Courtney Morrison-Archer, associate commissioner of Conference USA, half of whose teams will play in midweek games this season, pointed out some of the accommodations her league has made in recent years to keep athletes up to speed on their coursework on the road.

“The Visiting Student Access program was developed to ensure that the academic support needs of Conference USA student-athletes involved in away-from-home competitions were being met,” Morrison-Archer wrote in an e-mail. “The program affords visiting student-athletes access to libraries, computers and (if available) exam proctors as a result of travel to another member institution for practice and/or competition.”

Like Steinbrecher, Morrison-Archer also noted that her conference’s APR scores for its football teams have improved each of the past five years, since it started playing midweek games. Still, only half of its teams have scores higher than the FBS average for football teams.

The University of Central Florida Knights, members of Conference USA, play Wednesday night games on back-to-back weeks in October this season.

“For us, having known of these midweek games well in advance, our top-notch academics team takes all the necessary steps to keep the student-athletes up-to-date with their assignments,” wrote Joe Hornstein, associate director of athletics at Central Florida, in an e-mail. “Certainly, a Saturday game is naturally easier for everyone involved, including campus staff, fan base, team, etc., however, you make the best of your schedule and do so with the professionalism and expertise as you would on a weekend kickoff. We are excited to have the national exposure on ESPN on back-to-back weeks. In fact, we are the only game on, meaning those that may have an option of switching channels on a normal college football Saturday, will be watching us vs. UAB and Marshall, in successive weeks."

Though agreeing that midweek games are “not ideal,” Consuelo Stebbins, faculty athletics representative and assistant vice president for internationalization at Central Florida, said that her academic sensibilities were not offended by this season’s schedule. She said she has not heard many complaints from faculty regarding the games, and that they had been given ample notice.

John McElwain, associate commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, four of whose 12 members play in midweek games, said his league made it clear to ESPN that they would commit only to a limited number of weekday games when negotiating their contract.

“We’ll do it within reason,” McElwain said. “We’re not in a position to do it every week. It’s a strain for fans, student-athletes and ticket sales. You trade one thing for another. The one thing you’re trading to get is national exposure that you wouldn’t otherwise have. If we were in a position to play on ESPN on Saturday nights, we would. There are only so many opportunities, and you kind of have to go with what you’ve been given.”

The Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders, members of the Sun Belt, play in one Tuesday night and two Thursday night games this season. And athletics officials there do not apologize for the midweek games; they say they prefer them.

Photo: MIddle Tennessee State University

Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium.

“They do have a disruption on campus, there’s no question,” said Chris Massaro, athletics director at Middle Tennessee. “We don’t cancel classes for weeknight games. Some academic buildings are near tailgate areas, and sometimes tailgaters have gone into those buildings and been loud and disruptive. There’s also concern about football players missing class and, of course, parking. Still, you hear those issues and you try to work around them.”

Those concerns aside, Massaro noted that these weeknight games attract double the student attendance that weekend games do, due in large part to the university’s primarily commuter student population, who tend to work or travel home on weekends.

“Our president has used these games as a rallying cry and a way for us to galvanize our student body,” Massaro said. “We’ve found weeknights work best for us in that regard.… We’re not Alabama. We’re still trying to make a football name for ourselves. TV and the weekdays give you a platform to be able to do that.”

A Matter of Choice

Among the less-established leagues, however, there is a conspicuous outlier: the nine-team Mountain West Conference, which has only two teams that will play midweek games this season, both Thursday night affairs. This is no coincidence, according to league officials. The Mountain West has had a rising profile in recent years, especially with the appearance of the University of Utah Utes and the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs in major Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games. It is sure to gain more attention for its football success when the Boise State University Broncos, also BCS participants, join the league next season.

Last month, Mountain West officials announced that they had turned down an ESPN television contract because the network wanted them to schedule games on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

“Once we renegotiated our contract and they asked if we would play on Tuesday or Wednesday, our presidents said no,” said Javan Hedlund, associate commissioner of the Mountain West. “It’s not good for the student-athlete and it’s an academic issue, but it’s also not good for the fans. About 96 percent of our games are played on Saturday and that’s where we’d like to keep them. As an athletic director, you want as many games [as possible] on Saturday anyway.”

The Mountain West will still play games on Thursdays, though. Hedlund said that these weeknight games are less of a complication, since most football players do not have classes on Friday in the fall anyway, in preparation for Saturday games, and fans have come to accept the night as one appropriate for football. Still, he defended his conference’s uncommon — at least for its stature — stand against playing Tuesday and Wednesday, noting that it “has always been a progressive conference.”

Evidence of just how rare it is for some well-established teams to play midweek can be found with the top-ranked University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

Last month, university officials announced that the team will play its first weekday game on campus in 59 years — on Thursday, Nov. 18 against the Georgia State University Panthers. The game, originally scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 20, was moved at the last minute to give the team adequate rest for its traditional season-ending matchup against Auburn University the next week.

Given the game day hubbub, to which small-town Tuscaloosa is not accustomed on a weeknight, university officials have decided to cancel classes that Thursday. Still, students will be expected to report to class the next morning as usual. To make up for the lost day, students will get just one day off at the end of October for fall break, instead of two.

The decision to play host to a weekday football game for the tradition-rich Crimson Tide, however, was not easy. And athletics officials say fans and students should not expect many more in the future.

“We have a lot of concerns about having games during the week,” said Doug Walker, associate athletics director at Alabama. “We really don’t like to do them at all. There was a lot of deliberation about this decision. We consulted with our president and provost and made this decision as a whole university.”

Photo: University of Alabama

Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The concerns are largely logistical. Seating more than 101,000 fans, Bryant-Denny Stadium is the fifth-largest in the country. On game day roads into the town of 93,000 are packed and parking is at a premium. Walker admitted, however, that there are also “academic complications” for the athletes and their fellow students alike— hence some of the university’s reluctance to make midweek games a habit.

“There are enough demands on our student-athletes,” Walker said. “It’s just too complicated. We like to stick to the traditional weekend games, so I don’t think this is something we’re going to embrace a lot. We’re fortunate in that we don’t have to do this for a lot of reasons, but we understand that different people have different things to consider.”

Another Southeastern Conference team, the University of Georgia Bulldogs, shies away from midweek games for similar reasons. A prime contest during the week would likely force administrators to cancel classes. Two years ago, Damon Evans, Georgia athletics director at the time, told Eye on Sports Media that there would be no Thursday night games under his watch. Evans, who resigned in July, was true to his word. But the SEC’s latest television contract with ESPN requires that the conference schedule a number of Thursday night games.

 

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