For the first time in their 119-year football rivalry, Michigan and Michigan State football will play at night this Saturday.
The 7:30 kick-off time excites the recruits, the players, and the students. In other words, young people. The night game bothers many older fans, and worries store owners, university officials, and the police.
True, the late starts can bring a new energy to the game, which it did when Michigan hosted Notre Dame in Michigan’s first ever night game, in 2011. After the Wolverines pulled off an amazing 17-point comeback, the crowd stuck around for 30 minutes, just to cheer.
But older fans don’t like getting in their cars after midnight, especially when many have to drive several hours. Everyone else is worried about how fans will behave after a full day of tailgating. Some restaurant owners are prepared to close their doors if things get out of hand, and the police and university leaders of both schools are working to keep that from happening.
So why risk it? That one’s easy: Money.
The Big Ten conference’s TV contract has grown so big that next year member schools will receive more than $50 million – each. But it comes with a catch: TV gets to decide when you play, which has folks at both schools grumbling about the situation.
This reminds me of a gathering in 2001 of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group of university leaders who had organized in 1991 to save college sports from being swallowed by the massive amounts of money they were already generating.
Things got hot when the infamous Sonny Vaccaro, who had worked for Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, took the podium.
“I’m not hiding,” he told them. “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is to buy your school. Or buy your coach.”
This prompted Penn State’s president-emeritus, Bryce Jordan, to ask, “Why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”
All the presidents thought Jordan had gotten Vacarro – but they soon discovered he had only set a trap for them. Vacarro smiled. “They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”
As UNC’s former president William Friday said, “Boy the silence that fell in that room. I never will forget it.”
So if you don’t like night games, don’t get mad at the TV networks. They can only offer the money. What’s changed is how eager universities are to take it.
It wasn’t always like this. Michigan's Bo Schembechler said, "Toe meets leather at 1:05. If you want to televise it, fine. If you don't, that's fine too."
Bo's boss, Don Canham, backed him. For years, TV was dying for a night game at the Big House. Canham wasn't. So, they compromised -- and didn't have one.
OK, you start dictating terms to TV networks, they might cut back on the cash -- though I doubt it. But even if they did, what would that mean? It might force your rowing team to make do with a $20 million training facility, instead of a $25 million one. Perhaps these universities could survive such deprivations.
It would be worth it if, in the bargain, they got their souls back.
Bacon is the author of eight books on sports and business. His current book, Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, coauthored with John Saunders, is his fifth New York Times bestseller. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.