Spring games suddenly are ‘must-see’ television
The trees are budding and the birds are nesting—must be time to sit down and watch some of the least compelling matchups in college football: green vs. white, crimson against cream, blue takes on gold.
Spring games are blossoming on television as sports networks discover the value of airing the glorified scrimmages, tapping into fervent college fan bases—people who might otherwise be joining the tens of thousands at the stadium. It’s free advertising in the middle of the offseason for programs competing for the country’s top recruits.
The Big Ten Network is scheduled to broadcast live all but one of its schools’ spring football games this year on TV or the Internet, including Iowa’s open practice (the Hawkeyes don’t play a spring game). ESPN’s networks are televising five games this year, up from two in 2008. That doesn’t include additional teams available online at ESPN3.com, some as replays or simulcasts of regional broadcasts.
The only ones who don’t seem to be on the bandwagon are some college coaches, a bunch conditioned to fret over the tiniest of details.
New Big Ten member Nebraska is the TV holdout in that conference, for instance. The Huskers don’t want to show their retooled offense to their new rivals.
“I just prefer not to have it on,” said Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, whose team’s spring game was aired by ESPN in 2006 and ‘07. “Why would I let everybody see, who we’re going to play early, what we like to do?”
Of the 25 schools in the AP’s final poll last season, 12 are planning to have their games broadcast in some form this spring.
Notre Dame’s spring game will be televised nationally for the first time. Saturday’s scrimmage is on cable channel Versus, which is now a sister network to NBC, the Irish’s TV partner, after the Comcast merger.
“We are going to try to get as much gamelike scenarios as we can,” coach Brian Kelly said.
“I think we will get some excitement,” he added, “more so than the typical spring game.”
ESPN’s foray into spring football started mostly as an attempt to find programming to fill the schedule at new network ESPNU.
The number that later caught executives’ eyes wasn’t a rating but an attendance figure. In 2007, an overflow crowd of more than 92,000 attended Nick Saban’s first spring game at Alabama.
ESPN’s telecast of Texas’ spring game April 3 drew an audience of 226,000 households. The same time slot last year—which included a replay of the college basketball 3-point and slam dunk competitions—attracted 337,000 households.
Even if viewership isn’t great, the games are valuable in other ways to ESPN, which is so heavily invested in college football.
“We’ve been trying to make a concerted effort in making it a year-round proposition,” said Burke Magnus, the network’s senior vice president of college sports programming.
Magnus said schools had been receptive to having their games televised. LSU coach Les Miles would rather not have a spring game at all—he believes it’s an inefficient use of limited practice time. But these scrimmages bring in big bucks for the top programs. So if he has to have one, Miles doesn’t mind it being on TV.
“Your guys love to play on television,” Miles said before Saturday’s game, which was shown on ESPN. “It gives you the air of a big game. Your guys want to play better.”
Still, coaches whose games are televised may be more likely to hold back certain plays they don’t want their opponents to see. Asked if he recorded Texas’ spring game, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables deadpanned, “I don’t know if I did or not.”
“Were they on?” he asked to the laughter of reporters.
From the Sooners’ standpoint, Venables said, “I think we’re on TV as much if not more than anybody and we get plenty of exposure.”
Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, the Cornhuskers’ former coach, was concerned televising the spring game would hurt attendance—which has been more than 77,000 in recent years. Osborne said the school makes $700,000 to $800,000 in revenue from the game.
Coach Bo Pelini will be able to tune into his new conference’s network to watch the scrimmages of all his Big Ten counterparts. Plenty of passionate, midwestern football fans are sure to do so.