Bob Hunter commentary: TV’s appetite for Buckeyes night games won’t lessen

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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After Ohio State played host to its first night football game against Pittsburgh in 1985, eight years passed before there was another one.

This season, the Buckeyes will have two night games at home in less than a month — Wisconsin on Sept. 28 and Penn State on Oct. 26. In between, they will play at Northwestern at 8 p.m. on Oct. 5, giving Ohio State a stretch of three of four games at night, all on the ESPN networks (including ABC).

Think there might be a message there?

“I would guess (the number of night games) would continue to grow over time,” athletic director Gene Smith said. “I could see us (eventually) end up with three in a seven home-game schedule, with one on the road. That’s if we can agree to open up November.”

The Big Ten has had a policy against November night games because of Midwestern weather, but it seems clear where things are headed. If the Green Bay Packers can play night home games in January, the will to play at night in November is all that has been lacking in the Big Ten.

That seems to be changing quickly.

“(Our discussions) have been highly positive about (playing night games) in November,” Smith said. “It was positive in terms of giving our commissioner the ability to start having that conversation.”

Anyone who scans the list of night games at Ohio Stadium over the past 28 seasons can’t miss the trend: After the lull following the first one, the Buckeyes played two over the next six seasons. They played a night home game every other year starting in 1999 through 2005, then, after a quick two-year break, had a night home game in each of the past five seasons.The upcoming season will be the first with two night home games — Smith lobbied for that in place of two road night games — and Smith said that three might be in the future. (The Big Ten Network might request its own night game in 2013, but Smith isn’t sure he would give his approval.) Traditionalists might not like it, but traditionalists aren’t as convincing as television executives bearing gifts.

Television networks like night games because they are ratings gobblers. Coaches like night games because they bring wider exposure for the program, which brings in more top recruits.Some fans like them and some fans don’t, but let’s be honest: Whether they do or don’t doesn’t matter much; the fans are never the driving force in these decisions.

More and more night games are likely going to light up our skies and our TV sets. Even tradition-bound Michigan finally gave in and played a night home game in 2011, taking its Notre Dame game to prime time. That’s something Michigan men just didn’t do — until they did.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess. But seeing how television continually gets its way in sports, count me in the camp that says that if television wants Ohio State to play all night games, it probably will happen.

“I just don’t see that happening,” Smith said. “We have a lot of games that get televised with the Big Ten Network, and we just can‘t put all that inventory in that (night) window. We have to have afternoon time slots.”

Smith can’t say this, but I can: Television probably would prefer to divide that inventory between the haves and have-nots and put schools such as Ohio State and Michigan in that night slot every week, leaving the day slots to be filled by those who can’t draw big ratings.

Either way, Smith and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon might have to fight to the death to keep the networks from taking the Ohio State-Michigan game to prime time.

“Brandon and I talked about that a while ago,” Smith said. “He and I lean toward noon, the traditional starting time, but we have to be flexible. We know we have to be open to 3:30 if we’re asked. But that’s a day game and not a night game.”

As good as it is to have Smith and Brandon standing firm for Ohio State-Michigan tradition, history interrupts like a bored 5-year-old: All of their home football games were day games before 1985.

Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.

bhunter@dispatch.com

@dailyhunter

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