Friday Night Lights: The Case Against ESPN Friday Night College Football

I am a longtime subscriber to the theory that there is no such thing as too much college football. However, I may have to revise that view somewhat.

Obviously, college football on Saturdays is a wonderful thing, as attested to by the name of the most popular college football weblog out there. Thursday night football is a terrific invention for reasons that go above and beyond the opportunity it provides for making fun of Georgia Tech. I even enjoy seeing non-B.C.S. conference football in the middle of the week.

Friday night college football, though, may be unwise for the health of the sport.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy watching a good Friday night college football game on television, but I question whether the scheduling of such contests on the traditional night for high school football games might constitute a first step onto the slippery slope towards killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Consider the experience of major league baseball, a sport whose struggles are well documented:

Football and [b]asketball have passed [b]aseball in popularity among today[']s youth in America. . . . This crosses over to all races in this country. Look at the amount of foreign players currently on MLB rosters. All of Latin America, Japan, and Korea are doing a better job developing young baseball prospects. Why is the youth in America losing interest in [b]aseball? Ask yourself this question. What are the top sports played in American [h]igh [s]chools today? If you answered [f]ootball and [b]asketball you are correct. Here [are] a couple more questions to ask yourself. When was the last time you [saw] children out in the street playing catch with a ball and glove? When was the last time you observed a group of children playing a pick-up game of baseball at a local diamond or in a[n] open field? For me it's been a while. The interest in this sport is dying at the recreational level.

The author's assessment is more accurate than his syntax. Major league baseball moved in the direction of scheduling more night games, particularly during the postseason, in order to boost television revenue. This has had an adverse affect on viewership, particularly among the young, who cannot stay up late enough to see the end (or, oftentimes, even the beginning) of a World Series game.

Baseball's focus on short-term financial gain has been detrimental to the long-term health of the game. Interest in the sport is declining among American youth, so much so that baseball has come to be known as "The Dominican Pastime."

This fall, in an effort to combat the decline in ratings for the Fall Classic, the World Series will begin on a Wednesday and thereby avoid a Friday night game. This scheduling policy essentially means that World Series games will take place only on school nights, when children will need to be asleep earlier in the evening. More and more young people will be watching less and less baseball.

By shifting away from its historic practice of afternoon games---a tradition once embodied in the absence of lights at Wrigley Field; an institutional decision conducive to allowing fathers to take their sons to games---major league baseball has hampered the ability of its fans to perpetuate the popularity of the game by sharing it with the rising generation. Partly as a consequence, young Americans have shifted their focus to basketball, football, and soccer, sports whose regular season and postseason games are available for viewing during daylight hours.

I wonder whether, two decades hence, we will look back on the Worldwide Leader's decision to begin airing Friday night college football games as a similar sea change that made immediate financial sense yet ultimately caused more harm than good. After all, an opportunity cost of staying home to watch a college football game on ESPN is not going out to watch a high school football game live and in person.

If Friday night college football games cause a decline in attendance at Friday night high school football games, what effect will that have on local schools, booster clubs, communities, and, most importantly, players? For those student-athletes seeking the greatest amount of adulation from the crowd, might the presence of fewer fans in the stands incline them in the direction of better-supported sports? In extreme instances, might some school systems with marginal athletic budgets opt to drop football altogether if declining interest and attendance make the continuation of such programs financially untenable?

The popularity of football at all levels of competition leads me to believe that Friday night college football will not prove ruinous to the health of the game at the high school level, but it might steer some communities or particular players in the direction of other pursuits, producing a gradual decline in the levels of talent and interest available to the college game, chipping away incrementally at the quality of the sport.

Could such a thing happen in football-crazed America? Perhaps . . . just look at what has happened to the sport that, just two generations ago, held absolute and unquestioned sway as the national pastime.

Go 'Dawgs!

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