Good lord, let's hope so. In a blog post last Friday the Strib's Phil Miller had a few interesting Big Ten schedule nuggets I had not heard before. It could quite possibly be because I wasn't paying attention, but it also could be because I haven't seen this anywhere until now: in 2011 Gopher football may have it's first home schedule without a morning kickoff in over a decade. Every Gopher fan should be applauding if that happens, because it would be nothing but positives all around if the 11am game goes bu-bye.
Before we get to the Gopher schedule, the nugget of info Miller brings to light is that bringing Nebraska into the fold allowed the Big Ten to renegotiate it's TV contracts with ABC and E!SPN. While I'm sure the league will get even more money out it, a big point of contention they went after was those family of network's exclusive rights to the 2:30-5:30pm CST timeslot on Saturday afternoons. In the past it meant one, maybe two, Big Ten games a week would be shown at 2:30, leaving the other teams to play either before noon or at night, and with the B1G's stupid "no night games in November" rule it meant the Gophers and other Big Ten schools were guaranteed a lot of morning kickoffs. Unless there's a restriction on how many games the Big Ten Network can show at 2:30, I would think they'll try and load up on that time slot, especially for teams in the Central time zone. As Miller notes, the Big Ten was really the only conference who had their teams play before noon. The BTN will still show a game at 11am every week, and while they can't guarantee they won't have the Gophers or other Central timezone schools hosting games in that slot, it sounds like they'll do everything possible to keep those teams out of that time.
Which makes sense. An 11am start time is hated by everyone because it helps no one. You can't think the players or coaches like having to play so early, and the TV ratings are obviously better on a Saturday afternoon than Saturday morning or there wouldn't have been the 2:30 time slot blackout to begin with. But it was worst for Big Ten fans, and especially for a program like Minnesota's that has been struggling to gain traction in the Twin Cities for years. It's hard enough to get fans to come out and support the team when they're not winning consistently, and it becomes even moreso when the games are so early on a Saturday. I'm not putting all the blame for lack of support Gopher football receives on morning kickoffs, as winning obviously cures so much, but that early start time really, really hurts Gopher football.
As Miller notes:
Non-conference home games against New Mexico State on Sept. 10 and Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 17 will kick off at 2:30 p.m. and be televised by BTN (the Big Ten Network's new name); the Sept. 24 game with North Dakota State will start at 6 p.m., also on BTN; and ABC will carry Nebraska's first conference visit to Minnesota on Oct. 22 at 2:30 p.m.
The other three home games are Iowa, Wisconsin, and our new end of season "rival" Illinois. If Jerry Kill has this team playing well and competitive, it's a good bet the Iowa and Sconnie games could be afternoon starts. And because the Ohio State/Michigan game at the end of the year is always a noon start and the Big Ten wants to showcase that game, it could also mean the Gophers' season-ender against Illinois could get an afternoon start as well. Wishful thinking perhaps, but those afternoon starts make such a big difference for the college football and Gopher football gameday experience.
Tailgating is one of the best parts of college football, and an 11am kickoff is just too damn early to get any serious tailgating done, especially once it starts getting colder later in the season. Yes, the diehards will be at their tailgating spot at 8am, but that's about all you'll get. I think of people like Jermo's uncle Dave and aunt Linda, who have had Gopher season tickets since the dome opened, and drive up with a great group of folks from Rochester for every home game. They had so few opportunities for good tailgating the past few seasons because of the early starts, and would sometimes tailgate after the game to make up for it, or not at all. They're some of the most diehard fans I know, and if they can't make it for tailgating every Saturday because of the morning kickoffs, it's definitely going to impact the interest of the casual fans, and the overall gameday experience. To grow Gopher football, more afternoon kickoffs are needed to give the optimum amount of people the opportunity go and get the full experience.
There's also the student section. Enter your joke here about afternoon kickoffs might mean the students will stop showing up late- or start showing up at all. The student section is supposed to be another big part of the college football experience and I HATE looking into the endzone seats and seeing them half full. It only took two seasons for the "shiny new stadium smell" to wear off, as last year the losses increased, so did the number of empty seats at TCF Bank Stadium. And especially in the student section. Winning will obviously help draw more interest from the students too, but I can't think it's that hard to spend a few hours on seven Saturdays in the fall to support your school's football team. We NEED the student section to help build this program, and I hope they buy into what Coach Kill is doing here and get in on the ground floor of the Kill Era by showing up en mass in 2011.
Bottom line, yes, I know winning cures all, and In Jerry We Trust that the winning will come. But less morning kickoffs (or, more preferably- NONE) will do nothing but help Gopher football for the team, and both the casual and diehard fans.