Since the last pretense of big-time college football as an amateur endeavor has fallen away, the question remaining is how quickly does the enterprise give itself over to complete professionalization. I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure the agenda includes maximizing every possible revenue opportunity.
That’s partly why, for the first time, beer and wine will be sold throughout Husky Stadium Saturday (except for the student sections — wink, wink). It also keeps many fans from bailing out at halftime to finish the game drinking in the beer garden or on the yacht instead of watching a tedious blowout.
Such as the likely outcome of the Huskies season opener Saturday (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) against Montana.
As a native Montanan, I always will hold a sentimental place for the Grizzlies of the BCS Big Sky Conference. But in the mid-term future, the Griz won’t have a place on UW’s schedule. Nor will the Arkansas State Red Wolves of the Sun Belt Conference, the third-week opponent, or any member of a lesser conference willing to accept a bash for cash.
Which gets us back to the need in professional sports for revenues. Matchups with Montana and Arkansas State won’t get it done for the Huskies, or any other Power 5 conference team. That’s a reason you recently heard about the formation of “The Alliance,” an amorphous lashing up of the Pac-12, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conferences, designed mostly to counter the Southeastern Conference battleship.
Part of the agenda includes making the non-conference game schedules more attractive to TV networks, which drive the college football industry. That likely means the shrinkage, if not disappearance, of the mismatch games that often amount to glorified scrimmages.
Just not right away.
The Seattle Times reported that Washington has signed contracts for 14 games against Group of Five or FCS schools, stretching out as far as 2029. Some of them could be bought out, but for the near term, until realignment and reorganization sweep over the sport, the status quo holds those games in place.
Which means the return of fans to Husky Stadium Saturday for the first time since 2019 will be celebrated unto itself, since the game likely will fail to captivate. At least, if the most recent meeting tells us anything.
In 2017, the first game between the schools in 66 years, Washington won, 63-7. The last Grizzlies win in the series? The first meeting in 1920 — 18-14 on Denny Field over the then-Sun Dodgers. The rest of the series has gone 17-0-1.
None of this information is likely to please Jimmy Lake. The Washington coach played his college ball and graduated from Eastern Washington, also a member of the Big Sky. He would like everyone to know that the Eagles twice came close to slaying the dragon: Washington won 30-27 in 2011 and 59-52 in 2014.
Lake doesn’t want to see these kinds of games go away.
“There’s always going to be a place for this somewhere, whether it’s us or in another conference,” he said Monday. “I know the SEC, they love to play Northwestern Directional State. I mean, those (SEC teams) play two of them a year, but nobody talks about that.”
Actually, people do talk about that — mostly, they find the nearly inevitable r outs tedious, a magnum sin in the world of entertainment. Nevertheless, the shot by Lake at the SEC is appreciated by journos covering the most constipated of America’s big-time sports.
Lake knows these mismatch games can be fun for kids at smaller schools to go against the big guys in the big houses. Presuming they don’t get mashed in the process.
“I think it’s great for college football,” he said. “I don’t think those should stop, at all. Even with this Alliance, I don’t think the main goal is for all your non-conference games to be against (power teams). Especially geographically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. When you have teams out here on the West Coast, that makes more sense for the Pac-12 to play an FCS team out west, or a Mountain West team out west — just like you’ve seen last weekend with UCLA playing Hawaii.
“I don’t see those going away. But that’s just coming from me. I’m that way.”
Yes, he’s that way. At 44, already an old guy. Or at least, old-fashioned.
Big-time college sports are changing so fast that even a youthful, vigorous guy like Lake has a hard time keeping up. His predecessor at UW, Chris Petersen, will never admit it publicly, but among the reasons for his decision to quit his dream job at his pinnacle was that he didn’t like where the game was headed.
One of the casualties of the changes is likely to be the end of the cross-tier games, where Petersen at Boise State made his national reputation by beating bigger schools. But that was a rare circumstance. The vast majority of games by the Northwestern Directional States are pre-ordained thuds and duds.
Lake and his contemporaries can come up with all the geographical, psychological and financial reasons to continue the tradition. But college football is a live national spectacle, among the few entertainments that still draw sizable audiences to linear TV. It’s the main reason Lake’s annual compensation is $3.1 million instead of $310,000. So the more games the power teams play against one another, the richer they get.
What will happen to the programs at Montana and Eastern Washington without these occasional budget-boosting paydays against the big boys is unclear. But it is not the concern of ESPN and other TV networks.
As the programs at Texas and Oklahoma demonstrated when they blew a massive hole in the Big 12 Conference, it’s every school for itself.