Instead of television acting as a wall, Jim Tenopir wonders, maybe it could serve as a bridge. A lifeline. Salvation.
The Big Ten Network is reportedly available in more than 60 million homes. What if — and Tenopir, the executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, asks you to bear with him on this — the BTN could spend a little time each week spotlighting his member schools?
Or, better yet, the good work done by other high school associations within the Big Ten footprint?
You know, as a trade-off for the whole stepping-all-over-Friday-Night-Lights thing?
“We could throw temper tantrums and let everyone know we aren’t pleased with it, but the final analysis of it, it’s still going to happen,” Tenopir told Land of 10. “But I’ve had a couple conversations with (Nebraska athletic director) Shawn Eichorst, and they’ve been great conversations.
“The Big Ten Network, in my estimation, would be a great avenue for us to get the value of our high school-based, educational-based activities. Whether that ever happens, I wouldn’t know. But I think Mr. Eichorst is on the same page with us on that.”
As for the powers that be on the television side, well, that’s more of a wait and see. But it’s a start, an attempt to try to make chicken salad out of the offal the Big Ten office keeps dumping on his desk. Last week, it was the news that the league, at the behest of broadcast rights holders Fox and ESPN, was adding Friday night football games to the schedule starting in 2017, including intraconference matchups, tipping one of the Midwest’s most sacred cows.
On Tuesday afternoon, the specifics of the first six Fridays were announced, a slate that included the most powerful sporting draw in Tenopir’s state — the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who’ll visit Illinois on Sept. 29 as part of the Big Ten’s new weeknight initiative:
“It doesn’t make any difference if you’re home or away, if you’re in Husker Country, there is a major impact whenever the Huskers play football,” Tenopir said. “Even if people are not attending the game, they’re in front of their televisions watching it, so that has a definite impact as far as Fridays nights and our high schools are concerned.”
Tenopir knows he can’t change the tide of television, and that given that partnerships with ESPN, Fox and CBS are expected to bring a collective $440 million annually to the Big Ten’s war chest, any rebuttal would be like pushing a Brink’s truck uphill. Instead, he’s hoping to appeal to the league’s better angels, starting with the angels closest to home.
Pitch No. 1: A little BTN love. Pitch No. 2: A reduced — or, better yet, free — rental rate on the use of University of Nebraska facilities for NSAA events. The association currently holds its championships in football, boys and girls basketball, swimming/diving and volleyball on or around the Lincoln campus.
“And the relationship between our staff and their staff is excellent,” Tenopir said. “While we would prefer that Friday nights be kept to high schools, I think people can pretty much count on the association and the university to work together and make the best of the situation.”
Over at the Illinois High School Association, executive director Craig Anderson is trying to do the same. Of the six initial Friday offerings, half of them involve the state’s two Big Ten schools, including the aforementioned Nebraska-Illinois game in Champaign next year, just 50 miles down the road from his office.
Anderson and some of his Midwestern peers are meeting in Chicago the first week of December for their annual fall reconnaissance, and the new Big Ten television schedule is now firmly on the agenda. The association directors have even invited a representative from the Big Ten office to join them to discuss marketing and other opportunities that could offer mutual benefit.
“We’re hoping to open the door and hoping to publicize the benefits (of our associations) and work together with football in general,” Anderson said. “And hopefully they can help us. And we can help them in some regard, in lieu of the fact that they’re jumping in on what has traditionally been our high schools’ night.”
“It doesn’t make any difference if it’s home or away, it still has a major impact.”
— Jim Tenopir, executive director, NSAA
Illinois’ high school membership — Anderson said 580 state schools played football in 2015 — is more institutionally diverse than associations in say, Nebraska or Iowa. Some Chicago Public League football games are played on Saturdays and even larger suburban programs such as Glenbard (Ill.) West and Loyola Academy of Wilmette, Ill., play day games.
All of which made it less surprising to see Northwestern featured multiple times on the 2017 Friday night schedule, including hosting a game on Oct. 27 against Michigan State at Ryan Field. It’s the second of two football Fridays for the Wildcats, who visit Maryland on Oct. 13.
“The additional away games for Northwestern, I don’t know — I don’t think it necessarily would affect our crowds,” Anderson said. “But potentially (you) could see some people staying at home as opposed to traveling out at a high school game.
“I think we had expressed earlier that we were disappointed, obviously, that they’ve had to go to this, but at the same time, we kind of understand the financial situation that’s available to them.”
The Big Ten reportedly distributed $32.4 million to each of its 11 fully vested members at the end of the 2014-15 school year. Reports have estimated that number could swell to as much as $55 million-$57 million per vested program in 2017.
One of those vested members, Wisconsin, is home to the largest Big Ten facility slated to host a Friday night game next fall, when on Sept. 1 Utah State visits 80,321-seat Camp Randall Stadium.
The fallout on that one, Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association deputy director Wade Labecki figured, probably means some member schools will look into moving their Labor Day weekend Friday games up to Thursday.
“It would be interesting to see,” Labecki said, “because that (Labor Day) weekend, people don’t really (want) to go ahead and give up their weekend. So I would think you would see more of the high school programs (closer to Madison) going to Thursday, rather than going into a Labor Day weekend, going on Saturday.”
Labecki recalls his conversation with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany last week as courteous and brief — and that it occurred only a short time, maybe hours, before the Friday night initiative was announced.
“I wasn’t sure what he was talking about,” Anderson recalled, “and then when he broke this news, well, you’re a little bit in shock. And he was busy, he had a lot of activity that day in particular, when we spoke.
“Yeah, we were disappointed, but we understand. Hopefully we can work together.”
Anderson said that his counterpart in Minnesota, David Stead, asked Delany if the Big Ten would consider dialogue with the Midwestern state associations about a marketing partnership of some kind, “and they agreed. So we look forward to meeting the representative. I think that (marketing agenda) is what we’re leaning toward. We’ll see where the discussion goes.”
In the meantime, Tenopir is going to continue to pitch, continue to tweak. High school Friday nights are woven into the tapestry of Nebraska’s football culture, the preps a preamble to the Saturday celebration of everything Big Red.
“I did express (that) to the commissioner,” Tenopir said. “And obviously, it’s an economic decision. And the Big Ten is really no different than any other Power 5 conference in that certainly, it (needs those) dollars to feed the recruiting and the major sports and what-not.
“We were told Nebraska would have one (Friday) football game in the first three-year period (of the contract). But as I mentioned before, it doesn’t make any difference if it’s home or away, it still has a major impact.”
Tenopir has one other request he’d like to run by Eichorst, although he worries this one might not land feet first: Will the Big Ten be able to cap its Friday dates to no more than six per season?
“I have expressed concern that six Friday night football games in Years 1, 2 and 3 don’t turn into 12 in the next three years,” Tenopir said. Then he paused. “Or more after that.”
Because once television has the baton, once that particular genie is out of the bottle, dancing merrily on the table, there’s no turning back.