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Midweek MAC games on ESPN are all about the money

OXFORD, Ohio – Are you ready for some midweek Mid-American Conference football?

The answer might be yes, if you’re a serious college football fanatic and you like sitting on your couch.

If you like going to the stadium, the answer likely is no.

The University at Buffalo begins a three-week stretch of midweek games Thursday at Miami University. The Bulls won’t have to worry about a hostile environment. Miami is 1-7 and might be lucky to draw 1,000 people.

Attendance is notoriously bad for midweek MAC games, but that’s not the point.

You can guess the point: Television. And money.

“The exposure is great, and the revenue is critical to our league,” said Miami coach Chuck Martin. “It’s a fantastic thing. There’s a pro and con to everything. The con is the effect on kids’ class schedules. … But the pros far, far outweigh the cons when it comes to the MAC playing mid-week games in November.”

The MAC signed a new 13-year deal with ESPN last year that the network reported is worth more than $100 million. Various sources suggest the annual payouts will be about $840,000 per year to each MAC school.

That’s roughly eight times more than the MAC’s previous deal with ESPN. Obviously, the network goliath loves college-football content. The MAC has been playing midweek November games since 1999.

ESPN picks and chooses which of its platforms will air each game. The UB-Miami game will not be televised. It’s only available online on ESPN3. Two MAC midweek games next week will be televised on ESPN2, but not UB’s game at Kent State on Nov. 5. That’s online on ESPN3, too. The UB home game against Northern Illinois Nov. 11 will be aired on either ESPN2 or ESPNU.

Akron coach Terry Bowden joked about the difficulty of drawing crowds to midweek night games during an interview with The News before the season.

“I’m gonna suggest a mannequin game,” Bowden said. “Bring a mannequin, and you get in free. If we get 10,000, that gives us 20,000 in the stands.”

Akron does not get close to 10,000 in the stands for night games, nor does anybody else in the MAC. The games often start at 8 p.m., and it’s the coldest part of the season.

“It’s gonna hurt your crowds,” Bowden said. “But you’re gonna have great TV exposure that you wouldn’t have. … I wouldn’t bring my kids to a game at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night. But I would watch it on TV. The point is we’ve got TV exposure. We can’t fight every battle. I think we’ve had a great TV deal. It gives us exposure.”

There’s a negative for student-athletes, too. They miss two days of school for road midweek games as opposed to one day of school for a road Saturday game. UB’s chartered plane will get back from Oxford, Ohio, about 4 a.m. Friday. The players are required to go to class Friday. It should be noted football players miss fewer days of class due to games than basketball players.

MAC games have no chance to get on ESPN on Saturdays. The network has plenty of power-conference games to air on the weekend. But the coaches love the recruiting benefit of having their games more widely watched.

“When you have a conference that’s on national TV and you have a reputation for throwing the ball, you’re going to attract good quarterbacks,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich. “Our conference has done that. If you get good quarterback play, that raises the level of your whole football team.”

How many people watch? Better midweek MAC matchups draw roughly 550,000 to 600,000 viewers. A rare one might get 850,000. Two years ago, UB’s Khalil Mack-led team hosted Ohio University on ESPN2 and got 560,000 viewers.

Ordinary MAC matchups draw in the range of 140,000. UB’s home game against Akron last year on ESPNU got 145,000 viewers.

Still, that’s a lot more exposure than the teams would get without being on ESPN.

“It’s tough on families, it’s tough on fans,” said UB coach Lance Leipold. “But in this day and age, given the importance of exposure and how everyone recruits and the financial benefits for a conference like ours, I think it’s definitely a benefit.”