Can you feel that? That tingling on your skin, don’t you just want to scratch it? We’re rapidly hitting the dog days of summer, and that high school football itch has started its annual takeover.
I know, I know. We haven’t even hit Sheridan WYO Rodeo Week yet. The Troopers and Jets are still mashing baseballs, and the rising temperatures are sending fishermen, hikers and bikers to the mountains in droves.
Still, football is king in Sheridan County, and before we know it, the lights at Homer Scott Field will beam down upon crisp gold jerseys and unscratched helmets. Seriously, we’re less than 50 days away from opening kickoff and even fewer days from dreaded two-a-days.
And while most of us folks here in Sheridan County countdown the days to Friday Night Lights, some big dark clouds at higher levels are doing their best to rain on our confetti-filled high school football parade.
The NCAA has been steadily stepping it’s big, money-hungry feet onto the turf on Friday nights. At this point, fans can watch college football pretty much every day of the week except Sunday and Monday — because of course those are reserved for the professionals. And while most college games are played on Saturdays — with a few sprinkled on Tuesdays and Thursdays — Fridays are filling up.
Fifty-two NCAA FBS (highest division) games are scheduled for Fridays this fall. That number stood at 55 games last year and 56 in 2016. While we can look at the very slight decrease over that three-year span as a positive, comparing those numbers to a decade ago highlights the true issue.
Ten years ago, the FBS played just 18 Friday night games and only three in the final week of the season. That final week has been the biggest factor in this huge jump. A year later, in 2009, the total number rose from 18 to 30, and 13 of those came in the final week of the regular season. That 2009 season sparked a major shift in college football scheduling.
The schedule adjustments came down mostly to television rights. Major sports channels — ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports — needed something to broadcast on Friday nights; the NCAA needed more money (of course). So here we are.
The issue, of course, comes down to the unwritten rule that Friday nights are reserved for the preps. Shoot, there was both a movie and television show called “Friday Night Lights” about high school football.
But the NCAA is forcing fans to choose: stay at home and watch your beloved alma mater or drive down the road to get a glimpse of the local boys? Even more concerning: those giant 60-, 70-, 80-, 90-, 100-thousand seat stadiums need filled on Friday nights.
Now, some of those big time programs have pushed back on the idea of Friday games. Even as the Big Ten made a recent decision to play more Friday night contests, certain schools have refused. Even Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, which plays in a 107,000-seat stadium and has one of the largest fan bases in the country, said heck no to Friday football.
“Friday night is for high school football,” Harbaugh told Rich Eisen last summer.
But Michigan also rakes in more money than most programs simply because it’s Michigan. Some of these mid-major programs, the ones that rarely play on TV, could use as much of that ESPN money as they can get their hands on, even if that means playing on Fridays.
Locally, the University of Wyoming hasn’t fully jumped aboard the Friday train just yet, although it could certainly be coming. In 2018, 11 of the 52 Friday games will be played by Mountain West teams. One of those — Week 9 on Oct. 26 — will feature the Cowboys against rival Colorado State, an 8 p.m. kickoff on the CBS Sports Network.
That game will be played in Colorado, but Oct. 26 will also represent the opening round of the Wyoming high school football tournament. So fans will have to decide: watch the biggest Pokes game of the year (and possibly travel to watch it), or plop down in the (likely) cold bleachers to watch Tommy Touchdown in what could be his final football game?
Former Big Horn High School head coach Michael McGuire, who now coaches at Dickinson State, fears the debate is going to become much more frequent.
“I hope that it doesn’t become a trend, but I’m afraid that with TV contracts, increased exposure and the almighty dollar, that it will become more prevalent,” McGuire said. “I’m with Jim Harbaugh, I think Friday night’s should be for high school football only.”
Somewhere around 1,548 NCAA FBS games will be played over a 12-week stretch this fall, leaving plenty of opportunities to check out a game or two. For the most part, those games won’t interfere with local high school battles.
But the chances are climbing, enough to keep even the highest-profile coaches talking.
As that football itch grows over the next two months, hopefully you don’t have to decide on how and when to scratch it.