Unseen impact to Pac-12’s TV deal

Commentary: Greg Jayne

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

Published:

 

As earthquakes go on the high school sports landscape, this one isn’t exactly big enough to induce a tsunami.

But the Pac-12’s newly announced TV deal — worth an estimated $21 million per year per school — could have a ripple effect on local sports.

Somewhere in the fine print, behind the headline news of a new deal with ESPN and a new Pac-12 TV network and hundreds of conference sporting events being televised, lies the fact that Pac-12 schools will play some football games on Friday nights.

The deal calls for four Friday night games a year. Again — merely a ripple. But it’s enough to make one ponder the eventual impact on high school football.

Friday, you see, is the holy night of obligation for high schools during the fall. A sacred tradition throughout the country. An evening reserved for local people watching local students while sharing local gossip. There’s a reason, after all, that Buzz Bissinger named his book, “Friday Night Lights.”

So while the high schools throughout the state might be a little concerned if, say, the Apple Cup landed on a Friday night, for now they aren’t feeling the aftershocks.

“If the University of Washington or Washington State were playing every Friday night, that could shape our feelings a little more,” said John Miller, assistant executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. “But if it’s Utah vs. UCLA, I don’t know that it will impact our schools.”

Or, as Camas coach Jon Eagle said: “There’s a thing called TiVo, and you can probably TiVo all those Pac-10 games.

“Do I think it’s going to keep people away from our games? I think it’s extremely minimal.”

Eagle is right. But the issue brings up the reality that high school sports have been facing in recent decades. With more and more sports on TV, it becomes more and more difficult for high schools to lure fans to their product.

Football appears largely immune to this. It remains a communal gathering that takes place once a week.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that attendance at high school basketball has been affected. It’s difficult to sell the local high school kids to the public when there are multiple Top-25 college games or NBA contests that can be seen from the comfort of your couch. And the proliferation of flat-screen HD-ready TVs makes an evening at home all the more attractive.

“You always have your hardcore dedicated fans,” said John O’Rourke, the football coach at Columbia River the past 17 years. “But you might have people drawn away that aren’t die-hard fans.”

For its part, the soon-to-be Pac-12 can empathize with the high schools. Conference commissioner Larry Scott told Bud Withers of The Seattle Times that league officials consulted with state high school organizations throughout the region before solidifying the deal.

But a 12-year, $3 billion contract can grab your attention.

In recent years, Pac-10 schools have played occasional Thursday night football games. And Withers reported that ESPN vice president John Wildhack said those games have “worked incredibly well for us. We think the college-football weekend really begins on Thursday.”

Which might be a problem for high school football. Or it might not. Yet if the 800-pound gorilla that is college football chooses to sit on top of the high school game, increasing the number of Friday night contests and placing some marquee matchups in prime time, it can do some damage.

Eagle, on the other hand, isn’t worried about a tsunami.

“I still,” he said, “think high school football is a better bang for your buck.”

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by email at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne