For those wondering what in the name of Mike Lude is Georgia State doing on the University of Washington’s football schedule Saturday — the Panthers have the same chance as the TV commercial’s beef-jerky jokesters against Sasquatch — keep in mind the marketing strategy of the Mariners.
As Jen Cohen, UW’s associate senior associate athletic director for development, put it artfully this week, “We want to make sure the fans continue to have a great game-day experience.”
That is a marketing slogan straight from the Mariners handbook, in the chapter, “When We Suck . . . ”
Presumably Huskies patrons Saturday can count on running around the field, as well as a Chris Petersen bobblehead for the first 20,000. Too bad coach Steve Sarkisian left, or we could have had Bark in the Park with Sark too.
While it’s true the 3-0 Huskies don’t suck, this matchup — the Huskies are 35½ point favorites — certainly does. Georgia State is a recently returned member of the Sun Belt Conference, which in terms of football clout in that part of the country, is Latvia to the Southeastern Conference’s Russia. And the Panthers of Atlanta were 0-12 last season. So you can imagine passionate following there in a city where its Braves baseball team is regularly unable to sell out playoff games.
The school’s athletic department is engaged in one of the great rituals of college football: The hunt for a big payday. That’s when smaller schools send their football teams across the country for pummelings in exchange for, in this case, a $900,000 payout.
Even the morally dubious sport of boxing, when lining up tomato cans to fight champions, does the honorable thing by giving some of the money to the tomato cans. In college football, the money goes to replace the burned-out light bulbs in the 1960s-era scoreboards and funding the rest of the college’s sports programs. As you know, none of cash is allotted to the amateur players who expend three days, including travel, to get clobbered and embarrassed.
So if you have been puzzled by the recent spate of litigation that is threatening the NCAA’s insistence on unpaid entertainers for big-time football, the example of schools funding their programs by sending forth student athletes for uncompensated beatings can serve as a tidy illumination of the system’s absurdity.
Washington is no different than any other school in the Power Five conferences that order up French pastry to fatten their non-conference records. Nor is it new. The Huskies of 1991 that shared the national championship padded their 12-0 mark with 48-0 win over little Toledo.
The difference is that the ’91 Huskies at least had the decency to book one good non-conference game, that being ninth-ranked Nebraska, which was defeated 36-21.
The Huskies of 2014 have had close to an exhibition season, with Hawaii, Eastern Washington and Illinois the first three outs. But the fact that the first two were close allows Huskies head coach Chris Petersen to invoke the anything-can-happen mantra with a straight face regarding Georgia State.
“I don’t even think of it like that,” he said regarding booking outclassed opponents. “I just put the (Georgia State) tape on, and say, ‘Is this a problem?’ And I see a team that threw for 441 yards, and I’m going, ‘that’s a problem. That’s a good challenge for us.’
“Those issues are for, like, offseason, AD-level (meetings). I just look at what they do well and know they’re going to create some problems for us, and how are we going to try to stop those and get better? Because some of these things that Georgia State will do, we’re going to see again. Whatever our weakness is, is going to be part of our opponent’s game plan this week.”
The flip side is that in a 1-2 start, the Panthers defense has allowed at least 435 yards in each game. They will be mauled, and they and everyone within spittle distance of Lou Holtz knows it.
The Huskies want to sell season tickets with seven home games for reasons of revenue — as does nearly every Power Five team. After four or five Pac-12 Conference home games each year, the pool from which to choose two to three non-conference opponents has shrunk because it is getting picked over by every big school seeking seven home games, and further diluted by the lack of enthusiasm by major programs to come to a rugged place to play such as Husky Stadium.
Scheduling formidable non-conference foes is even more unlikely now that a four-team playoff will decide the college national championship — no potential contender wants to be eliminated in September.
So these days Washington, as do most schools, ends up with at least one and often two or three Corvairs on the books for a Formula One season. That’s where the marketing of “the game-day experience” comes in.
As with the Mariners, the Huskies have a beautiful facility that serves as the sizzle when the steak is mostly gristle. Tailgating at Washington comes in two varieties, land and sea, and amenities in the new joint abound. A Huskies game thus elevates to the level of an event, seven fall Saturdays (or Fridays or Thursdays) of alums gathering comfortably regardless of weather to hoist several cocktails in celebration of 125 years of UW football.
So in the big business of college sports, the idea of watching relatively comparable programs in dramatic intersectional contests recedes to the level of quaintness. The money is too big, the risks are too high and the second- and third-tier opponents are too eager to take a thrash for the Huskies’ cash.
The fact that the game is virtually guaranteed to be lousy becomes less important than “the game-day experience” because most people are staring at the lake, or the mountain or waving at their server for another.