Bob Gardner appreciates the Big Ten giving him the floor. But now the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations feels he needs to act before the ceiling caves in on high school football Fridays.
“He did express a little bit of surprise that what he felt like was the pushback,” Gardner told Land of 10 when asked about his meeting this week at the Big Ten’s offices in suburban Chicago with commissioner Jim Delany and league administrators. “And I had communicated to Jim that that pushback is universal — it’s not limited to Big Ten states. Other state officials across the country feel the same way.
“In fact, we’re likely going to try to be a little bit more aggressive at fighting back and going to the media, going to the public, saying, ‘Hey, high schools play on Fridays and colleges play on Saturdays and the pros play on Sunday.’ And we think it’s a pretty good arrangement and has been good [for] a number of years.
“We have to be careful. Because if they start eroding high school support, that’s going to end up hurting us and hurting the fan base … dividing loyalties.”
Dividing time. And, more to Gardner’s point, dividing dollars.
Given the Big Ten’s commitment to at least a handful of Friday games as part of a reported six-year television pact with FOX and ESPN, Gardner admitted that his “fighting back” options are somewhat limited.
“I think one thing that we’ll likely do is, in our upcoming annual meeting this summer, we’ll probably do a resolution about protecting Friday nights for high school football, and see if each one of our state directors will sign it,” Gardner said. “And we’ll send that to all the conference commissioners and to the Division I schools and also make copies so that the media [can distribute it] and see where it [goes].
“Maybe some state legislators would be interested in that as well. We’ll just see.
“I don’t think we really have formulated our plan necessarily yet. But I think it’s time to speak out and defend ourselves and defend what traditionally has been our night. There’s no way to keep people from playing if they really wanted to. But if public interest, public opinion is on our side, that might change [minds] a little bit.”
To be clear, Gardner and his state association peers are fans of the college game, too. They also fail to understand how the Power 5 leagues don’t grasp the hoops that the working spectator may have to jump through to rearrange his or her Friday schedules for their favorite college program.
“When you think about it, most people who go to college games still work,” the NFHS executive director said. “And you know a lot of people there don’t just live right in the town where the [team plays], so it’s difficult to work on that Friday and get to a Friday night game, wherever it is. … I think there are a lot of factors that are in play here, as opposed to a Saturday game where people have an opportunity to drive to that venue.”
The Big Ten originally had proposed eight Friday games for 2017, but the two involving Northwestern were moved to back Saturdays, bringing the total to six: Utah State at Wisconsin on Sept. 1; Washington at Rutgers on Sept. 1; Ohio at Purdue on Sept. 8; Illinois at South Florida on Sept. 15; Nebraska at Illinois on Sept. 29; and Iowa at Nebraska on Nov. 24. The Sept. 1 games coincide with Labor Day weekend, while the Nov. 24 game is — as every Iowa-Nebraska game has been since the Cornhuskers joined the league in 2011 — played on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
‘We should be vocal before this thing gets farther out of hand.’
— NFHS executive director Bob Gardner on Power 5 football programs playing Friday games
The SEC has no Friday games scheduled this fall. The ACC and Pac-12 each are slated to take part in eight Friday contests, five of which are intraconference matchups.
The Big 12 lists two Friday games on its master schedule — Texas Tech at Texas and Baylor at TCU — and both kick on Nov. 24. And it’s hard to picture a league with deep Longhorns roots daring to step on the toes of the state’s storied tradition of Friday nights under the lights.
“I think the Big 12 has been looking at it and that it hasn’t been widespread yet,” Gardner said. “We just feel … we should be vocal before this thing gets farther out of hand.”
He says the Big Ten has floated the idea of collaboration with the NFHS on promoting training and development of officials at the high school level and partnering on other marketing and promotional initiatives.
“We appreciated the audience, the conference’s willingness to listen to us and talk about it,” Gardner said. “And there were some athletic directors who were very sympathetic. There were some who don’t want to play [Fridays] and aren’t likely to play. And some who are committed to play now [might] refrain from that in the future.”
Gardner is grateful for the empathy. He says that Delany and others have encouraged state associations to collect data on the effects of Big Ten Friday nights over the next six years on high school attendance, revenues and operations.
“And I’m sure they’ll do their measurements as to what their eyeballs are on the Friday night contests,” Gardner said. “They want to hear from us what the impact is on high school sports.
“There may be some states where the impact is minimal. But there certainly will be some states, if you talk to Jim [Tenopir, executive director of the Nebraska State Activities Association], it’s almost [insanity] to go against the Huskers in Nebraska. It’s the only Division I program in the state. The program is both the college and the pro team out there.”
The Cornhuskers are one of the television-ratings-slash-fan-following giants participating in Year 1 of the Big Ten’s Friday night initiative. Tenopir told Land of 10 this week that he understood the Big Red were also in line to host a Friday night game during the first three years of the league’s new broadcast contract.
“There’s no question, that [television] is a big part of it,” Gardner said. “[We] very likely might as well communicate with them as well, I think, if that’s the route that we decide to go. I think we’ll have widespread dissemination of what our feelings are … we’ve not done anything formal, a resolution or anything like that. But it may be time to do that.”