SBJ/October 22 - 28, 2001/Opinion

Football Saturdays last all week long

To the eternal question of "What's on TV tonight?" there's a consistent answer, at least during these fall months. It's that clash of beefy scholars that goes by the name of college football.

College football isn't on every night, but it's beginning to seem that way. This year, the game that in dim memory was the sole province of leaf-turning Saturday afternoons broke new or newish ground by showing up on the tube on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Friday nights, albeit on a limited basis. Added to the Thursday and Saturday games that already were TV staples, that left only Wednesdays free outside the bowl season, and the betting is that it won't remain so for long.

I know, it's late to be tsk-tsking over the commercialization of athletic contests between the representatives of our institutions of higher learning. Not only are our big-time sports schools fully up to date in their revenue-gathering techniques, they've also developed new ones in ways large and small.

For instance, the recent practice of some professional football teams of making season tickets available only to purchasers of "personal" or "permanent" seat licenses was foreshadowed by many colleges' linking such offerings to contributions to their athletics departments. Similarly, one expects the University of Michigan's move this year to levy parking fees on news-media members coming to Ann Arbor to cover its football games will quickly become universal.

The expansion of the college-football television calendar is further evidence of that same, audacious spirit. Until this year, Friday nights were considered sacrosanct in the football world, saved exclusively for the high school teams that are the game's wellspring. It's truly breathtaking that the colleges — not the pros — chose to break that taboo.

The schools that are spreading their names across the pages of TV Guide note that they are violating no rules in doing so, but it probably wouldn't matter much if they were; indeed, if their enterprise had a motto, it would be that flexibility in the pursuit of income and airtime is no vice.

The best example of that is the NCAA rule that limits the college football big-timers to 11 regular-season games, but makes exceptions for the so-called preseason contests of late August and early September, games outside the continental United States (in Hawaii, mostly) and championship playoffs in conferences that have two divisions. Throw in the end-of-the-year bowls that this season will involve 54 of the 117 members of the NCAA's Division I-A, and a college team could play 15 games that count, one fewer than the Chicago Bears. Brigham Young University did just that in 1996.

Much the same point can be made about the effect of the colleges' new scheduling on the academic responsibilities of the young men who make up their squads. A midweek game — on a Thursday or, now, Tuesday night — can cost a visiting team three classroom days — one to travel, one to play and one to heal. Yes, college basketball teams have been performing on such nights for some time, but the healing day doesn't apply to them and the number of players involved in the two sports is quite different. In military terms, a basketball game is a squad action, while a football contest involves a couple of battalions.

The 6-year-old Conference USA spearheaded the move to Tuesday night football in the name of league recognition. To its credit, it eased its players' off-field burdens by making sure participating teams had weekends off before and after their Tuesday dates. How long such safeguards last remains to be seen, however.

I'm sure you've heard the joke about the man who phoned the chronically losing team's box office to inquire about a game's starting time, and was asked in reply what time he could make it. Well, when a TV network calls a college about when a game might be played, the AD is apt to ask what night the network has free.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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