Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Night Moves

You're not going to find Michigan playing a home game on Saturday night. Ever.

According to a recent Free Press article, though Michigan is willing to accomodate the occassional late afternoon start, Athletic Director Bill Martin has said in no uncertain terms that Michigan will never host a night game. For that, I say Huzah! to Mr. Martin.

Such a decision seemingly flies in the face of college football logic. Night games mean viewers. Viewers mean exposure. Exposure means applications and t-shirt sales. More importantly, it also means recruits get to see your school play. According to the article last year's afternoon Iowa game brought in an approximate 4.0 point share, with a point being 1,102,000 households. Had the game been at night, it could have been a 5.0 share or more. That's a lot of viewers that miss the opportunity to see Michigan on the field.

Take a look at the ESPN pre-season top 25 (btw, Michigan is ranked 16). Ohio State plays home games at night. Oklahoma, check. West Virginia has them. Texas, bingo. Florida State lights up DoakCampbell. Southern California, duh. Several other prominent schools host night games. Notre Dame. Miami. Penn State (we're playing them at 8pm on October 14). Even the lesser programs host them. Fresno State. Michigan State. Boise State. All these schools are reaping in the viewership benefits of hosting prime time night games. Michigan is not alone in holding out against night games, but stands in an increasingly shrinking fraternity of such programs. Though Michigan Stadium will undergo $226 million in renovations, not a penny of that money is designated for stadium lighting.

But really what are the benefits of night games for participating programs? Financial? Publicity? Recruiting? Is the progression towards night games simply a fact of economic life in sports, similar to baseball's move under the lights? Is Michigan's decision to prohibit night games a good one or bad?

The real benefit to a program participating in night games is exposure. Taking ABC's Monday Night Football as an example, a greater number of viewers are available in the evening. Whether its because their back from work, the beach, or Tibet, they're at home with nothing better to do. This is prime time baby.

During that 7-10pm slot, a majority of the American viewing public is turning on the tube. This means big money for the networks and big exposure for the participants. The more people that see your school the better. While I have no scientific data to back this up, I'll argue that the more people who are exposed to and aware of your school, they are more likely to apply, buy stuff, and talk about your institution.

Night games also give potential recruits a better opportunity to view your school from afar. While friday night lights are nice, the reality is in major metropolitan areas there are too many schools and not enough facilities to get all the games done in one evening. So games are played all day saturday too. Thus a Saturday night game might allow that wideout in Dallas with the 4.2 speed to see a game in Boston after his own game and think to himself, man, I might like it there. At least that is the logic.

While these are nice thoughts, they really don't apply to schools like Michigan. Exposure is something UM has in abundance and is not something that is likely to go away anytime soon. Using Notre Dame as an example, during the dark years (Davie), Norte Dame still maintained its legion of fans, its television contract, and its popularity despite several mediocre to bad seasons. At a certain point, the name speaks for itself. Recruits aren't going to stop coming to Michigan, USC, or ND because they don't see them as often as they'd like. They'll still come. It may affect Michigan on the fringes with top prospects who grew up rooting for a particular team. But top prospects, at least lately, seem to view the recruitment as career decision rather than ones made with the heart. All you have to do is look at the recruitments of Ryan Mallett and Jimm-ahy Clausen as evidence of this trend.

What it comes down to is money. But you knew this already. There is a load of financial capital sitting out there waiting to be thrown at the networks and NCAA when good match-ups prop up at night. Many universities drool over this. Not just for the revenue stream the game provides, but from the ancilary benefits of application fees, apparel sales, etc. However, again, these are not things Michigan is lacking. As Mgoblog pointed out months ago, Michigan is the most profitable collegiate athletic department in the country, raking in an over $17 million surplus. When you're rolling in that kind of dough, you can afford to order the Ol' 96er and leave half of it on the plate.

So what is the point of all this you ask? To give Bill Martin some credit for sticking with a great part of Michigan tradition and not trying to dive deeper into banks of the Pactolus river.

One of the great aspects of Michigan football is Ann Arbor during a fall afternoon. Watching a game in Michigan Stadium during the day is far better than watching one in the evening. While its just my opinion, you pick up the movements better and see things clearer during the day. Also, there is something to be said for attending an afternoon football game, taking in a Michigan victory, and then having the rest of the day to savor its sweet taste.

Walking around Ann Arbor after a game is a sight to behold. The leaves have turned to the colors of a sunset. The crisp air wakes you with every breath. Your fellow alumni and fans stream from the stadium into the bars and restaraunts all to talk about the game. You put your feet up on your porch. You grab a sandwich outside at Good Time Charlie's. Maybe pick up a Bell's XL and a coke on the walk back. You might even throw a football around, pretending it was you who stretched that extra inch toward Michigan football glory.

You still have your day after a win, or god forbid a loss, to enjoy. That, to me, is one of the greatest parts of the Michigan football tradition. Football as a part of a glorious fall day. One that begins with wonderous anticipation, climaxes under the afternoon sky, and slowly settles into a glorious evening.

Martin also made this very valid point with regard to night games, "It's... an awful lot of tailgating going on for an awful lot of time." I can attest to the proposition that too much tailgating can be a bad thing. Driving out of a stadium parking lot, pro or college, after a night game is a dangerous thing. Most of us who tailgate get there early. You get a good spot. You fire up the grill. You enjoy an adult beverage, or two, or four, or ten. For those fans who go towards the end of that sentence, leaving the game in one piece can be a challenge. I've been forced to wonder too many times whether the camper next to me will a) take off my front fender, b) rear end the guy in front of him, c) run over the parking attendant, or d) run over the cop flaggin him down. While I've had my share of nervous moments after an afternoon game, night games are certainly the worst.

I don't wish to come off as anti-gating. Far from it. I love getting to a game early, grilling a brat and having my share of a PBR 30 rack. Kyle is on record as not being a proponent of pre-game drinking, I take a different view. As Dirty Harry once said "A man's gotta know his limitations". If you're a jackass when you drink too much, don't. If you can't enjoy a game without a buzz, consult a therapist. If you enjoy having a beer or a cocktail with friends at a game, do so. Just know when to stop. If you're just there to get loaded, and not enjoy the game, sit at a bar and give me your ticket.

If I know I'll have a few I don't drive to games. Unfortunately, many other many fans don't share that view. From a public safety standpoint, Martin's stance makes perfect sense. I'd rather have people tailgating for 4 or 5 hours rather than 10.

Certainly all of us during our undergraduate days would have reveled in a few additional hours to tailgate or simply sleep off the previous night's hangover. Night games provide that. But for the majority of people who attend these games, those really aren't considerations.

Martin has said and done (for the most part) the right thing with regard to night games. While I am somewhat annoyed with him caving on late afternoon games (4:30 start time for Michigan State!?), so long as it does not become a rule more than an exception, I'll live with it. Even though great memories like last year's Penn State game took place under the lights, better memories were formed under the sweet November afternoon sun of 1997.

Keeping Michigan under the glow of the sun rather than the glare of halogen is the right decision. Martin deserves a golf clap for keeping with tradition on this one.

Now, if we can talk about Crisler....

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