Is it fair that B1G rivals play in empty stadiums in 2020 but go back to hostile site in 2021?
There are certain games that just mean a little more, the ones you look for when that new schedule comes out.
On Wednesday, the first thing I looked for was Michigan and Ohio State’s annual matchup. Then I looked at the other rivalry games, like Minnesota vs. Wisconsin, Michigan State vs. Michigan, Ohio State vs. Penn State, Nebraska vs. Iowa, Indiana vs. Purdue and Illinois vs. Northwestern. I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard.
These annual rivalry games are special to the host team because of all the pageantry surrounding the game, the excitement it builds around campus and the advantage of a packed house.
But 2020 is no normal year; it’s unlikely that any fans will be in the stands this season, negating that precious home-field advantage. What should that mean for the future schedule? Is it fair that rivals play in empty stadiums in 2020 but go back to the hostile site in 2021? For example, is it fair for Penn State to host Ohio State in an empty Beaver Stadium this season and then have to go back to the Horseshoe in 2021 in front of another packed house? Penn State’s season could be determined by whether it beats its East Division rival.
Is it fair? Probably not. But is there anything the Big Ten can do? Well, it’s complicated.
For one, the Big Ten had to adjust the locations of 6 games this season in order to give itself the most flexibility. The most notable is the rivalry game between Michigan State and Michigan, which will be in Ann Arbor for the second consecutive season. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Purdue and Indiana also had locations of divisional games adjusted. According to The Athletic, the Big Ten plans to alter their schedules in 2021 so that these teams aren’t playing each other in the same location in 3 consecutive years.
What about everyone else?
The Big Ten shouldn’t promise anything as of right now. It should let this season play out and see which games actually get played.
It always makes me chuckle how college football teams schedule games so far in advance. The Big Ten had its schedule set through 2025, and nonconference games are scheduled out even further than that. One thing we’ve learned through this pandemic is that it’s not necessary. The Group of 5 teams are putting together schedules on the fly as we speak. The Big Ten has adapted to the situation and will continue to do so.
The biggest thing to watch will be whether the season is played in full. What if some games are played this season but others aren’t? The Big Ten shouldn’t commit to manipulating a portion of the schedule for next year because that would throw off the number of home and away conference games for some teams.
While it’s not perfectly fair, there may be nothing the Big Ten can do in terms of changing the future schedule. Ideally, Penn State would get to host Ohio State next year in front of its crowd, and the same goes for those other rivalry games. But the Big Ten may not be able to satisfy everyone, and that’s OK.
You also have to take into account that traveling to an away game during a pandemic is still going to be a big inconvenience — and thus an advantage for the home team. An away game will still require getting on a plane and staying away from home for a night or 2. It’s still playing in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s just not as daunting as it would be with 100,000 people screaming at you. So at worst, it’s a minor advantage instead of a major advantage.
I certainly sympathize with teams that have a marquee opponent coming to town in 2020. But it also cuts both ways. Ohio State, for example, might luck out with its Penn State trip, but it also hosts Michigan this year. That means Buckeyes fans could go from 2018 until 2022 without seeing Michigan in Columbus. It’s unfortunate, but everyone is dealing with it.
If the issue is revenue, then maybe the teams can come to an agreement and split whatever the gate is for next season.
Remember, college football isn’t exactly “fair” all the time anyway. In any given season, some Big Ten teams play 5 home league games and some only play 4. Some, like Wisconsin, get a cake-walk of a schedule. Others, like Iowa, get Ohio State and Penn State. That’s life.
I spent several years covering Ball State, which plays in the Mid-American Conference. Each year when the schedule comes out, the program would hope that the league would give it as many home Saturday games as possible, since the conference switches to mostly mid-week games about midway through the season. Getting your home games on a Saturday makes a huge difference, because very few people show up on a Tuesday night in November. But a Saturday afternoon? Ball State would have 3-4 times as many fans in the stands, creating an entirely different atmosphere, plus more ticket sales. In some years, Ball State would have 3 Saturday home games. In others, it would have 5. It’s the luck of the draw.
The same sort of logic applies here to the Big Ten. It stinks for teams that are missing out on big home games this season, but COVID-19 has dealt everyone curveballs. The league shouldn’t be going around looking to correct every minor injustice, because that’s a slippery slope.
The best option is to let this season play out and remain flexible. Nothing needs to be promised right now.