This is the first in a three-day series focused on the Mid-American Conference’s midweek football games and the impact they have on Northern Illinois’ football program.
In the early 2000s, the Mid-American Conference decided to try something different in its football schedule.
Tired of being crowded out of the national TV scene on Saturdays by the likes of the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and other conferences, the MAC started moving games to the middle of the week.
It was the only way to get on the ESPN family of networks.
Nationally televised midweek games have since become a consistent part of the MAC and NIU’s football schedule over the past decade.
These Tuesday and Wednesday games are an opportunity for football programs to gain national exposure in prime time and aid in recruiting future players. They provide another revenue stream to the athletic department and offer the university a chance to get its name out across the country.
However, the midweek games also make it harder for students and alumni to attend games, resulting in smaller crowds. The immediate financial consequences are evident, as NIU loses tens of thousands of dollars in revenue from ticket sales, parking and concessions on midweek games compared with an average Saturday game.
On Nov. 9, 2004, Northern Illinois played Toledo on a Tuesday night at Huskie Stadium. The game, a 31-17 Toledo win, was the first time NIU played on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was a sign of what was to come.
The Huskies would play three midweek contests in 2005, and had a Tuesday night contest in 2006 – the memorable fog game against Toledo. This season, NIU has three on the schedule, including Wednesday’s matchup against Ball State at Huskie Stadium.
Conference officials, including MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, say the exposure is critical in boosting the national profile of the MAC’s top teams.
“Just go back to last year, and the attention that was garnered by our teams. Anybody who was good last year was getting significant attention, because inevitably what was played out was, our league championship race played out on national TV in primetime,” Steinbrecher said. “It was invaluable in terms of exposing a Northern Illinois or a Kent State, or a Ball State or an Ohio.”
Midweek games are seemingly the only way for mid-major conferences such as the MAC to get on national television in primetime slots. But with the TV exposure also comes the drawbacks of smaller crowds and lower gameday revenue, according to an analysis of MAC records.
The Huskies’ lone midweek contest last season was a Wednesday-nighter with an 8 p.m. start against Toledo. The matchup essentially was for the MAC West Division title, and it drew a good crowd, with 17,813 fans in attendance, 2,000 more than the average home Saturday contest in DeKalb. But because of lower ticket prices, the ticket revenue of $45,390 was about $30,000 less than the average Saturday game at Huskie Stadium.
The Huskies’ lone midweek contest in 2011, a Tuesday night game in DeKalb against Ball State, drew only 12,391 fans and generated a mere $17,056 in ticket revenue. Comparatively, Saturday home games in 2011 averaged 16,463 fans and almost $77,000 in ticket revenue.
Concession sales on the east side of Huskie Stadium, which are run by the Convocation Center, averaged an additional $1,500 on Saturday games compared to the Toledo game in 2012. Parking revenue dropped from an average of $10,116 for Saturday contests to $7,470 for the midweek Toledo game.
The same story unfolds around the MAC. Toledo averaged more than 5,000 fewer fans for weeknight games last season. The Rockets’ average ticket revenue was $134,818 during the week compared to an average of approximately $211,000 for Saturday games.
However, the MAC made $1 million from its contract with ESPN last year, which more than covers the gameday losses per school.
With weeknight games now limited to November, the most home games a team will have during the middle of the week is two. This season, NIU, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo each have two midweek home games.
“Everybody talks midweek games and I think people get a picture in their head that we play all of our games ... midweek,” Steinbrecher said. “We play a very compact, narrow portion of our schedule in the midweek. We play November. So generally speaking, you’re talking about one or two home games and one or two road games.”
Hanover Park native Craig Quinn, a 1996 NIU graduate, has been going to almost every NIU home game for the past 10 seasons, even the midweek games.
It’s roughly a 45-minute drive from Hanover Park to DeKalb, and the 7 p.m. starts are easy to make for Quinn. However, the 6 p.m. kickoffs, such as the Huskies’ game against Western Michigan Nov. 26, can cause some hassle. Quinn, who works near O’Hare, said the midweek games are good for the entire conference due to the opportunity to get on national TV, even though it may be rough on some fans.
“The 7 o’clock games, I just leave (work) 45 minutes early and I can make it out there before kickoff,” Quinn said. “The 6 p.m. ones, there’s no way I can make it unless I take a half day.”
As NIU makes a push for another BCS bowl game, the Huskies will not play on a Saturday the rest of the regular season. They finish with consecutive Wednesday games and a Tuesday night contest. The MAC title game is also on a Friday.
Playing on a weeknight, the trade-offs are obvious. NIU athletic director Sean Frazier thinks the exposure is great for not only NIU, but the MAC. He also understands the negatives that come with it.
“If it puts us out there, lets us shine, I’m supportive of it. Philosophically as an educator, I would rather not have that, to be perfectly honest with you. But I do see the merits, so I agree with the concept of getting us a platform that nobody else has,” he said. “So if we can be on national television, have a great matchup between two MAC opponents, I’m fully supportive of that, I think our commissioner’s done a great job of making that happen.”