The Wisconsin softball team played two of its biggest home games Wednesday afternoon at Goodman Diamond, but you most likely didn’t know about them.
Even if you did know the Badgers played, there’s little to no chance you could have attended the games anyway.
Like half of Wisconsin’s six home series, the final home series against Nebraska yesterday came as part of a Wednesday afternoon doubleheader. The games were initially scheduled back to back at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., but due to weather concerns, the twin bill got pushed ahead to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. If they weren’t early enough as it was, the nearly morning start time for the first game of the doubleheader made it seem like the series was being played as part of a secret society event no one could know about. The attendance of 271 certainly reflected that, a drop of exactly 1,100 fans from last Saturday’s Senior Day matchup with Purdue.
With no baseball team, softball is the calling card for the UW Athletic Department in the springtime, but you wouldn’t know that from the games scheduling. The Badgers had three home Wednesday doubleheaders this season, all with 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. start times. The other nine home games of the season consisted of two Friday doubleheaders with 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. first pitches and five Saturday and Sunday games, all of which started between the hours of 12 and 2 p.m.
The times for the weekend contests are reasonable, but as for the weekday games, they leave you scratching your head. Obviously there is the subject of weather, considering spring in Wisconsin is anything but predictable. Scheduling in the afternoon helps to avoid a temperature drop come nighttime. Therefore, changing the times for the weekday games, at least in Wisconsin, might be unavoidable. But if that’s the case, then the promotion for UW student day shouldn’t have been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon’s games. The Athletic Department might not have complete control over when games are, but having a promotion during the middle of when most students are either in class or napping doesn’t bode too well. I can’t imagine that many of the 271 in attendance Wednesday were students, outside of the players on both teams who had to be there.
Clearly softball isn’t one of the revenue sports at Wisconsin, but providing a quality playing environment that more closely resembles a sporting event and not the atmosphere of Steenbock Library starts with the scheduling of events.
Unfortunately, though, softball isn’t the only team at Wisconsin playing during odd times of the day, and the real problem is not weather. It’s the influence of television, specifically the Big Ten Network. Ever since BTN launched in August 2007, the network has changed the sports landscape in the conference, but hardly for the better. Sure, the access to Big Ten sports has widely increased and you can now watch sports like softball, swimming and wrestling on a regular basis — if you have cable or satellite, that is — but the network has also drastically changed sports and the times they air.
The biggest impact of BTN has been its at least partial responsibility for the hockey realignment, which in only one season has diluted the college hockey product. With no Big Ten hockey league when the network came on the air, it couldn’t dedicate coverage to a product on the ice and would just air games sparingly. But the discussion of an NCAA-sanctioned men’s hockey team at Penn State in 2010 allowed for a Big Ten hockey league now that there were enough teams for a league.
The decision by Penn State could have been for competitive reasons, but there’s no doubt money played a key role. A network dedicated the conference gave the opportunity for teams to have regular air time and exposure, an opportunity less well known hockey schools like Ohio State, Michigan State and certainly Penn State would seize in a heartbeat. Because broadcast rights involve money, there’s more than just the idea of exposure at play.
This past season with the launch of BTN hockey, ESPN U and NBC Sports also decided they wanted in on college hockey. While Wisconsin and the other Big Ten schools got more exposure because of the different television outlets, it came at a cost. For the years I have followed Wisconsin hockey dating back to the start of the Mike Eaves era in 2002; the staple start time for games was 7:07 p.m. With the influx of television deals this season though, Wisconsin started games at 4 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., which included a Thursday-Friday series in the most important two-game set of the year against then-No. 1 Minnesota. But even when games were on TV, more often than viewers would have liked, other games beforehand cut into the Badgers’ game.
This has also been a regular occurrence for basketball, where games on BTN and other networks are scheduled for an unrealistic two hours to maximize the number of games in one night. Just like hockey, the games almost always seem to cut into one another. It might be a minor annoyance, but if these networks dictate when these games are played the least they could do is make sure the game gets broadcasted in its entirety.
To say the softball games Wednesday were infected by this recent plague might be a bit of a stretch, but lately games have been dictated more and more by the people who stand to make money off them rather than the people who pay the money to get into them.
The schools and networks can continue to schedule games however they please, but they’re only hurting themselves.
Dan is currently a sophomore at UW with an undeclared major. Do you agree with him that TV networks have altered the landscape of college sports for the worse? Let him know by sending him an email at email@example.com or sending him a tweet @DanCoco7.