Because Fresno State is playing the 1,000th football game in school history, let’s imagine what would go through the mind of Arthur W. Jones, Bulldogs coach from 1921-28, if he were somehow transported into the pregame ceremony.
“Dang,” Jones might tell himself, “there sure are a lot of people.”
Or perhaps, “Something funny about the grass in this stadium. Smells like tires.”
Then would come this realization: “What’s everybody doing here on a Friday night?”
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What are we doing here?
In the days before television ruled the sports landscape, college football was played on Saturday. Just as it’s meant to be, sandwiched between high school and the NFL.
That all changed in 1991, when ESPN began televising Thursday games. Ten years later, the NCAA lifted its restrictions on Fridays — and the lives of devoted Bulldogs fans haven’t been the same since.
The 2001 Fresno State team, the one led by David Carr, the one that started 6-0, was among the first to permit its schedule to be rearranged for the sake of TV.
Fresno State played three Friday night games that season (plus two on a Sunday). Here’s what a school official told the New York Times then about that decision:
“We didn’t want to do Fridays because of the high schools. But we were starved for recognition, and ESPN gave us an opportunity that we’ll capitalize on.”
Thirteen years later, nothing’s changed. Ask the same question and you get the same answer. Fresno State is still starved for recognition.
Guess what? It always will be.
This is the Bulldogs’ 26th Friday night game and 16th at home. (Their record is 11-14.) How much recognition does it take before you’re actually recognized? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.
I tried to find the Nielsen ratings from Fresno State’s game at New Mexico last Friday on ESPN2.
Two Web sites listed the top 100 cable shows from that evening for the adult 18-49 demographic. Our tilt didn’t make the cut.
While the Bulldogs were playing the Lobos, more people were watching re-runs of “Friends,” “NCIS” and “SpongeBob.” More were watching “American Pickers” on the History Channel. More were watching something called “Amazing World of Gumball” on Cartoon Network.
There are other benefits, certainly. Fresno State gets a $500,000 bonus from the Mountain West Conference for games on ESPN or ESPN2. The network’s announcers talk about you (at least a little bit) and your promos flash on the screen a few times.
But let’s be honest. How important was Fresno State-New Mexico to the suits in Bristol, Conn.?
Here’s one indication: While the Bulldogs and Lobos were playing on ESPN2, the network’s flagship station (ESPN) was airing a high school game. Hmm.
Two of Fresno State’s four consecutive Friday night games are on ESPN/ESPN2. The other two, including the 1,000th game in school history, are on CBS Sports Network.
Unlike ESPN/ESPN2 contests, Fresno State gets no bonus for games on CBS Sports Network. And the side benefits are miniscule.
CBS Sports Network is available in 96 million homes, but far fewer actually get it. You have to purchase an expanded-channel package or some special sports tier. Even then, the network’s ratings are so insignificant that Nielsen doesn’t track them.
Cable sports television is a crowded world. ESPN remains the 800-pound gorilla, but other entities are investing millions to narrow the gap.
CBS Sports Network is not among them. While rivals Fox Sports 1 has MLB playoff games and NBC Sports Network owns rights to English Premier League soccer and the NHL, Mountain West football shares air time with bull riding, bowling, volleyball, lacrosse, motocross and surfing.
More sports cable networks means more time slots to fill, and we’re well beyond saturation levels.
The Bulldogs don’t even get the Friday night stage to themselves.
While Fresno State and San Diego State play on CBS Sports Network — for no monetary gain on a channel that doesn’t even get ratings — ESPN is televising Utah State against No. 18 BYU.
Where’s the benefit again?
Friday games are disruptive to the people who are supposed to matter most: student-athletes, coaches and fans.
The Bulldogs have three Friday road games, meaning every player on the travel squad misses three extra days of classes.
October is a big recruiting period. So as much as coach Tim DeRuyter toes the company line about exposure, you know he’d like to have his assistants flying the company logo at high school games.
Not just this Friday, when many Central Section teams play their league openers, but the following one as well. Instead of coaching in Las Vegas, Bulldogs assistants could be recruiting Southern California.
Fans are the most inconvenienced. Some can’t attend because they have conflicts with high school games. Others must travel long distances after work. And Fresno State isn’t exactly known for easy parking, especially for fans arriving during rush hour.
If the Bulldogs were getting $20 million or more every year from television, like the Power 5 schools do, then all these Friday night games would be worth it.
Instead, they remain stuck in a specious spiral for recognition.