As Big 12 brings Friday nights into play, Oklahoma high school football stands its sacred ground

As Big 12 brings Friday nights into play, Oklahoma high school football stands its sacred ground

The media partners pay millions and expect you to play in their broadcast windows in return. Sometimes those windows extend beyond 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and prime time Saturdays all the way into prime time Fridays.

Guerin Emig

By Guerin Emig

| Aug 31, 2023, 5:09pm CDT

Guerin Emig

By Guerin Emig

Aug 31, 2023, 5:09pm CDT

Big-time college football is beholden to money, which means it is beholden to the media partners that pay millions. The most obvious consequence of that around here leads Oklahoma from the Big 12 Conference to the SEC.

Just don’t miss the ripples that hit Oklahoma State. The Cowboys host Kansas State Friday night, Oct. 6.

Friday night?

“I don’t like it at all,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “But Brett Yormark (the Big 12 commissioner) came in our meetings and said, ‘We’re gonna play in Mexico, we’re gonna play some on Friday night and we might play some on Tuesday night. So y’all are gonna have to figure it out.’

“I mean, that’s what he said. So that’s the way it is. The conflict is not good, but the television people don’t care about your conflicts. They don’t care about high school football. This is what you’re gonna do.”

The media partners pay millions and expect you to play in their broadcast windows in return. Sometimes those windows extend beyond 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and prime time Saturdays all the way into prime time Fridays.

Now the ripples hit our high school football too.

“I hate it because in communities like we see in the Tulsa area, Friday night lights are so important,” Bixby coach Loren Montgomery said. “And you would at least think that would have ability to take away from that. If Oklahoma State’s playing Kansas State or whoever and it’s a big game on Friday night, you know there are some folks that are going to make the decision to either go to that game or watch that game on television instead of coming out on Friday.”

Bixby is among the Tulsa area suburban powers with packed trophy cases and supposed firewalls against waning attention or attendance. It’s telling that Montgomery isn’t the only east-side suburban coach concerned nonetheless.

“Friday nights in the fall are supposed to be for high school football,” Union coach Kirk Fridrich said. “I understand (colleges) are trying to schedule things and figure stuff out. I get it when you have bigger conferences and you’re trying to get as many games on TV as possible. But it’s more than a little frustrating.”

“I’m really disappointed that that’s the direction it’s going, but I’m also not surprised because clearly money is driving everything now,” Owasso coach Bill Blankenship said. “I mean, nothing makes sense. And so why would they care about high school athletics anymore? That used to be something that the poor conferences did to chase money, and now the big conferences are going to do it to chase money.”

The big conferences have been doing it, actually. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC have played smatterings of conference games on Friday night for several years. We just haven’t noticed it as much because the Big 12 hasn’t been as keen to follow suit.

This year, however, BYU hosts Cincinnati on Friday night, Sept. 29, the back end of an ESPN doubleheader that opens with the ACC game Louisville at North Carolina State. The Cowboys bring in K-State one week later.

“I am a traditionalist by nature. But I also know that times change and you have to be flexible enough to change with the times,” OSU athletic director Chad Weiberg said. “We’re very sensitive to this, so when that subject (Friday night Big 12 games) came up as it relates to the conference conversations with our media partners moving forward, that was a concern that I think all of the athletic directors had. We expressed that with our media partners…

“I think the idea was to minimize it as much as possible knowing that it was likely that we weren’t going to be able to eliminate it, given what we’re asking from them. We have to be good partners and deliver in some areas.”

That reality hits harder than the last time OSU played on a regular season Friday night, Aug. 30, 2019, at Oregon State. Conference games like OSU vs. K-State, the defending Big 12 champion, hit harder.

The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association shudders as a result.

“We feel like we have a unique and sacred product,” OSSAA executive director David Jackson said. “Friday nights, for all of us, have always been for high school football. And so we feel an obligation to protect that.”

The problem is organizations like Jackson’s are firing peas at ESPN’s and Fox’s tanks.

“We can’t compete against the money that schools are making,” Jackson said. “All we have is our plea to help protect what is the purest form of competition, which is at the high school level.”

Jackson, a 27-year OSSAA official, recalls the organization lodging its first public complaint about college kickoff interference “probably 10 years ago.” He remembers a polite but buck-passing response.

He’ll get the same response now. The chain of command on matters of millions of dollars in TV revenue is extremely top-heavy, with the commissioner’s office pulling more weight than any office on campus, since it is the commissioner at the negotiating table. TV offices pull the most.

When Yormark introduced the potential for more Friday night football at the league’s media kickoff last month, he lauded “the promotional and marketing prowess of ESPN and Fox and what they can do to build the brands of our member institutions as well as this conference.”

Promoting, marketing and brand-building were big ideas behind the Big 12’s $2.3 billion agreement with ESPN and Fox last October. What helps a league do that?

“When you think about the tonnage of college football on air on a Saturday,” Yormark said, “it provides a lot of opportunity for us to build our profile on a Friday night.”

One enterprise’s building is another’s disconnecting. Or further disconnecting.

“Tulsa has played quite a few Friday night games the last few years because of the TV exposure and the money and all of that,” Montgomery said. “But the Tulsa game isn’t going to impact the local high school games much just to be honest with you. However, the Oklahoma State game will. An Oklahoma game would.”

It isn’t a new intrusion, just a more formidable one. An indomitable one when you consider the money pouring from ESPN and Fox into college football.

Oklahoma high schools digging in against that corporation might be fruitless, but at least they’re still digging.

“We’re always going to fight that,” Blankenship said of the Friday night infringement.

“Where we’re coming from from an association standpoint is what’s next?” Jackson said. “If we don’t stand up for this, what else are we going to have to battle?”

“We’re probably starting to learn to live with it to an extent,” Fridrich said, “but I just think… I mean everything that is traditional is going out the window. I guess high school football will be one of those that goes out with it. It’s just such a sacred night in Oklahoma.”

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Guerin Emig is a columnist for the Sellout Crowd network. Read his work at selloutcrowd.com and guerinemig.com. Reach out with feedback and/or ideas at [email protected] or (918) 629-6229. Follow him on Twitter at @GuerinEmig and Instagram at @guerin.emig. .

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