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NIU

VIEWS: MACtion may not be in best interest of league

NIU Huskies fans braved the cold at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 09.
NIU Huskies fans braved the cold at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 09.

Am I in the minority or what? #MACtion, aka, midweek college football – blessing or hindrance? Savior or detriment? Novelty or nuisance? Somebody, please tell us. Quickly, before we lose interest or get frostbite some chilly evening at Huskie Stadium.

Okay, I do know this. It’s beyond complicated. The Mid-American Conference’s Rubik’s Cube, if you will. 3-D entanglements from ESPN, the league, and its membership.  I get it.

The ultimate question: Do these 25 late October and November league midweek regular-season games really serve the best interests of the MAC, its member institutions or its student-athletes? 

Me? I’m not so sure.

For Northern Illinois, athletic director Sean Frazier and the other league schools, #MACtion might be an unsolvable conundrum in the 21st century battle for survival at the FBS level. What I mean is, television is great for college football, but at the same time, it’s killing local interest and attendance at our level.

Frankly, after 14 years of midweek MAC dates, much of the sheer “uniqueness” and original interest has dissipated. Many people are not sure the “tradeoff” – moving games from Saturdays for midweek national TV exposure on the various ESPN platforms – makes it worthwhile, no matter what various league, school and network administrators posit.

At first, I thought the weeknight games were a fantastic concept. NIU’s two in 2004 were both at home and on ESPN2 – a Friday (Sept. 24) vs. Bowling Green State (25,819 attendance and 74 degrees at kickoff) and a Wednesday (Nov. 10) vs. Toledo (27,719 and 42 degrees). What could be wrong about national TV? The next year.

In 2005, Northern Illinois had three weeknight MAC dates – all Wednesdays, two in DeKalb and one in Toledo where I soured on the idea. I’m not an academician, but the student-athletes were missing two-plus days of class time.  “How could the league presidents vote for this?” I thought.  TV was the answer.

What started out as a modest eight-game MAC commitment for ESPN midweek football in 2004 has transformed into a monster, eliminating the traditional Saturday game activities for six weeks, essentially eroding fragile season ticket bases, and devouring “townie” businesses and support. Consider this: More than 25 percent of the MAC’s 96-game regular-season this fall were weeknight dates.

On paper and within a Group of Five budget, the $100-million contract signed with ESPN in 2014 appears to be a godsend and, yes, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher deserves major “props” for the deal and his visionary foresight (keep reading).  

Upon closer examination, the ESPN pact runs through 2026-27 and generates $8 million per annum for the league or $670,000 annually per school, which represents significant and unprecedented TV revenue stream for the league. Or does it?

Everything’s relative. According to one source, the MAC lags behind the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA to the tune of $4-6 million a year in TV money within the Group of Five. But compared to the Big Ten and the Power Five, whose TV contracts range in the billions, that looks like pocket change.

Right or wrong, the debate continues in local homes, businesses, watering holes, the Huskie Stadium stands, internet chat rooms and, I’m sure, within Mid-Am athletic departments. In our community, the past two NIU midweek home game attendance numbers (an announced 8,872 vs. Eastern Michigan and 6,603 vs. Ball State) speak volumes.  This non-support for a proud, high-profile Northern Illinois program that has been bowl-eligible nine times in the past ten years doesn’t jive. Strange. Is this what the MAC really wants?

If anything, this fall on TV the MAC leads the country in exposed aluminum seats, which belies the ESPN recruiting aspect I’ve heard.  “Son, come play in the MAC before 15,000 empty seats” doesn’t make much sense. Yes, the weather in the Midwest is cold in November – even worse at night. I’m sure there’s a league memo to ESPN (or vice versa) to minimize the crowd shots on TV. Sad aspect of #MACtion, sorry.

The other downside: Who’s watching? To date this season, the largest Huskie TV viewership (808,000) was for NIU-Nebraska on Fox Sports 1. I’m not sure what size audiences ESPNU or ESPN3 draw.

Imagine Frazier’s frustration when higher-ups insist that NIU athletics should be more “self-sustaining.”  Of course, it should.  Isn’t football the top revenue-generating sport? How do you sell season tickets with only two Saturday home games? And, by the way, due to #MACtion, how far are Northern Illinois and other MAC schools from reaching the NCAA’s 15,000 home attendance average criteria?  To digress, who or what pays that bill?

Historically, the past three commissioners – Jerry Ippoliti, Rick Chryst, and Steinbrecher – all have been proactive in getting the league on TV. In 1997, Ippoliti initiated the pacts for the first MAC Championship Game and the Motor City Bowl. Chryst expanded the ESPN relationship in football and men’s basketball.  Steinbrecher bridged the present-day TV needs to the future and realized the next technology is video streaming.  

Much of that $670,000 payout per school has gone to institutional TV production for campus ESPN3 originations in football, men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports. With outside production costs soaring, the traditional MAC Game of the Week packages or relationships, such as NIU had with SportsVision and its various successors, are outdated and not viable in a mid-major context.  That said, did you see that Louisville just paid $8 million for an on-site, state-of-the-art TV studio for the new ACC Network?  The MAC is not in that financial realm.

Whether it’s the ESPN platforms or new streaming networks (one rumored to be Amazon), there’s one constant: All such entities will be looking for college sports programming seven days a week. One could almost call #MACtion studio football.

In a way, Northern Illinois – in essence – helped create this situation. SB Nation put quarterbacks Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch in its #MACtion Hall of Fame for all the high-scoring, action-filled, entertaining games – such as the wild-and-crazy 63-60 Huskie victory at Toledo in 2011 or the “de facto” Mid-Am title game 31-24 triumph over the Rockets in 2012.  

The “cult” popularity of those televised games and NIU’s historic run to the Orange Bowl allowed Steinbrecher to renegotiate the ESPN contract in 2014.  One year later, Steinbrecher upgraded the league TV deal again, this time with CBSSports.com, which signed a sub-licensee agreement with ESPN through 2018-19.

What’s ESPN exposure worth? Tons. In 2006, I saw it firsthand at the preseason Playboy All-America team shoot in Phoenix.  The majority of Garrett Wolfe’s All-America teammates had seen him play weeknights on ESPN.  And one must admit that Lynch punched his ticket to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist with three straight, late-season stellar performances on ESPN2 before the balloting. How many Heisman voters saw Lynch on TV?

You know I’m a MAC guy – longer than anyone in the current league office. Being part of such a well-respected, complaint-free conference still ranks as one of NIU’s greatest athletic successes.

This time of year, I miss the Mid-Am football presence on Saturdays. The answer? Long-term contracts should be periodically re-evaluated. Maybe with more flexibility and collaboration among all parties involved and, if possible, cut the number of weeknight games.

Some of us hate frostbite and empty aluminum seats. Am I in the minority or what?

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