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How the Rise of MACtion Forever Changed MAC Fandom

Midweek football games are great for TV viewers. They’re less great for fans and students of teams in the MAC. Here’s how a scheduling quirk became a national phenomenon—and how it’s affected those who stand in mostly empty stadiums in freezing temperatures.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have been in love with Mid-American Conference football for about eight years now. This may seem strange, because I did not attend a MAC school, nor did any of my family members or close friends. I went to college in northern Illinois, but have never met anyone who went to Northern Illinois University. My closest connection to MAC football is my girlfriend’s former roommate. When she told me that she vaguely knew Dri Archer during her time at Kent State, I felt compelled to ask her dozens of questions about it.

I’d like to think my love for the MAC blossomed out of its many beautiful, unusual football phenomena. I got deeply invested in the 2011 Toledo team that lost a nationally televised game 63-60 one week, then won another nationally televised game 66-63 the next. I stumped for NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch’s 2013 Heisman Trophy campaign. I told anyone who would listen that 13-0 Western Michigan deserved a spot in the 2016 playoff. And I made the case that Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson should have been a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. I even tried to train my dogs to high-five me like former Northern Illinois mascot Diesel the Husky high-fived his trainers.

In truth, though, my love for the MAC blossomed out of convenience more than romance. I came to love the MAC because it plays football games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November, allowing me to watch football seven nights a week instead of merely five. The cult of followers who got hooked on these midweek offerings gave the games a name—MACtion.

Since 2000, the MAC has played football games in the middle of the week, a setup that’s been mutually beneficial for the conference and its television network partner. “In the beginning, ESPN came to us,” commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says. “Conference USA began this, but they stepped out of it, and we moved into that vacuum.” The reasoning was simple: On a traditional college football Saturday, casual fans would almost never choose to watch Eastern Michigan play Central Michigan instead of a marquee matchup involving the sport’s perennial powerhouses. But on a Tuesday, with no other football on, people might tune into a MAC game, winning potential fans for the league and viewers for ESPN.

“In the sport of college football, you have 130 teams playing on basically the same day,” Steinbrecher says. “We have a couple of days where we’re the only games in the country. We’re not competing against the NFL, we’re not competing against other college properties. It’s given us a chance to elevate and build a national brand, which is challenging to do.”

The 2000 timing was fortuitous. The midweek MAC games brought widespread attention to the college careers of Marshall’s Byron Leftwich and Miami (Ohio)’s Ben Roethlisberger, who skyrocketed from relative anonymity to become top-10 NFL draft picks with some exposure from nationally televised games. In various MACtion contests over the years, fans had the chance to watch Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman rush for three touchdowns, Central Michigan receiver Antonio Brown rack up 170 yards, aptly named Buffalo edge rusher Khalil Mack tally three sacks, and Western Michigan wideout Corey Davis go off for 272 yards with three scores. (Viewers could also see Central Michigan left tackle and future no. 1 draft pick Eric Fisher block effectively, but that has less mass appeal.)

At the start, the MAC’s midweek slot served as a showcase for the league’s biggest games. As recently as in 2012, midweek games were the scheduling exception rather than the rule: 12 of the 18 MAC games played that season between November 1 and Thanksgiving were on Saturdays, compared with six games that were on weeknights. But in 2014, the conference inked a 13-year deal with ESPN that reportedly pays each MAC school more than $800,000 annually. In 2016, just two of the 18 MAC games between November 1 and Thanksgiving were on Saturdays, compared with the 16 that took place on weeknights. This strategy worked. MAC football games that might have been relegated to streaming broadcasts on Saturdays routinely drew hundreds of thousands of viewers on ESPN2.

However, there is a notable drawback to MACtion: To attract national attention, MAC teams have agreed to play football games on weeknights … after sunset … in November … in the Midwest. As such, attendance figures for MACtion are bleak. Of the 68 home games played by MAC schools in the 2018 season, 16 of the 17 best-attended came on Saturdays, with the other being played on a Friday in August. Five of the bottom six games took place on November weeknights.

I interviewed several MAC fans about their experiences attending MACtion games. Their love for their respective teams is made clear by the apparent misery they endured freezing through weeknight football just to show it. “Once you get deep in the season, it’s a quiet, solitary experience,” says Justin McMullen, who attended weeknight games as a high schooler in Buffalo before going to college in Cleveland. “Saturday games felt like college football,” says Evan Schrauben, a former Eastern Michigan student. “The MACtion games feel more like high school football.” Miami (Ohio) graduate Ross Simon made the same comparison as Schrauben, but with a slight tweak: “There’s a better atmosphere at high school games than the Tuesday and Wednesday MAC games,” he says.

For years, college football has been shaped by a quest to fill as many broadcast windows as possible, with decision-makers prioritizing TV viewers over potential attendees. MACtion may be the starkest and most successful example. It allows viewers like me to become secondhand MAC fans from the comfort of our couches, while making life more difficult for the die-hard MAC fans who spend frigid weeknights watching their favorite team surrounded by their favorite empty bleachers.

It seems like all MAC fans can easily remember their worst experience attending a MACtion game. Simon, who did the play-by-play for Miami’s student radio station and therefore attended home and away RedHawks games from 2011 to 2013, didn’t have to think hard.

“We’re playing Akron on a Tuesday night,” he says. “It must have been 35 degrees, and not only is it freezing cold, but it’s pouring rain. It was me, my cocommentator, our engineer, and I’m pretty sure that we were the only students in the stadium. It was the middle of midterm season. And the east side of the stadium is exclusively for students, so that whole side of the stadium is completely barren.”

As Simon tells it, he would have had access to the inside of a press box, but then-Miami head coach Don Treadwell had a clause added to his contract stipulating that his family would have access to a stadium suite. “I don’t remember the score at all,” Simon says. “I just remember I thought my hands were going to freeze off.”

For McMullen, the worst game was a post-Thanksgiving matchup between Buffalo and UMass, which has since left the MAC for the Atlantic 10. “It was cold and it was wet and it was dark and we lost to UMass, the worst team in the MAC,” he says. “And we lost out on bowl eligibility, and it was just the most miserable experience of my life.”

Teddy Piepkow felt a twinge of sadness when watching a midweek Bowling Green game against Toledo, a matchup between two schools located 20 minutes from each other that should have featured a stadium packed with fans of both teams. “Lots of people would come out and attend a game on a Saturday, close to a sellout crowd. And then you play the game on a random Wednesday on a 40-degree night and there’s nobody there, and it takes away from the experience for the fans and players.”

Piepkow speaks from experience. He played linebacker for Bowling Green from 2002 to 2005, winning a pair of bowl games and competing in the 2004 MAC championship. When Piepkow was in school, midweek games were still rarities that highlighted the league’s best teams. His last win as a player came in a Tuesday-night clash with Miami, a rematch of the previous year’s MAC title game. His family drove down from Michigan to see him play—and then were forced to wait three hours as kickoff was delayed by thunderstorms. “We watched Rocky 2 in the locker room,” Piepkow says. “My family found some bar in Oxford to wait.”

On a Saturday, an extended delay could result in a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. On a Tuesday, this game kicked at 9:35 p.m., wrapping up at 12:55 a.m. Piepkow wouldn’t trade the game for anything—he had an interception and made four tackles as the Falcons won 42-14. “There’s a level of excitement when you’re playing on national TV and it’s the only game in town,” he says. But now Piepkow is a father of two and lives in Michigan. He likes taking his family to MAC games—but simply can’t drive an hour and a half each way on a school night. “The weeknight games are just out of the question.”

Schrauben remembers when Eastern Michigan once tried to boost attendance by offering free tuition to one lucky student who attended a Thursday-night game—a promotion that ended up causing angst among a considerable portion of the student body. “People had classes, and people had jobs, and lots of people couldn’t just go to the game,” Schrauben says. The promotion didn’t work: The total attendance for the game was 3,534; Eastern Michigan’s enrollment is over 15,000.

Steinbrecher is aware of the issues, but says that the exposure and money generated by MACtion are huge for the league. He calls it “a balancing act.” “Clearly, you want to be very respectful of the home fans, and we’re so very appreciative of all they do for our member institutions throughout the year,” Steinbrecher says. “Clearly, the midweek games provide us national platforms that are just invaluable.”

When asked about the adverse effects of the weather, Steinbrecher tries to downplay its impact. “It’s cold on Saturdays too,” he says. That’s true: Last year’s Akron-Eastern Michigan matchup, one of the few MAC games that started at noon on a Saturday, had snowy conditions with a temperature of 32 degrees at kickoff. But the cold gets meaner when the sun goes down.

“If they played these games on Saturday in the same weather,” Simon says, “you’d have at least double the amount of fans.”

It would be nice if the conference could play its midweek games in, say, October, when the cold is less brutal. But that isn’t feasible if the league wants to open the season by playing games on Saturdays. “It would be virtually impossible to meld in Tuesdays and Wednesdays earlier in the season,” Steinbrecher says. And MAC programs need to play on Saturdays early in the season, because their other primary moneymaker comes from receiving big paydays to take part in road games against power-conference opponents. Kent State pulled in $1.5 million for traveling to Arizona State in August (a 30-7 loss) and $1.9 million for going to Auburn two weeks later (a 55-16 blowout). Moving from those games on to the MACtion schedule requires several weeks of coordinated byes.

The numbers absolutely clarify that attendance lags at weeknight games. Piepkow’s delayed Tuesday game at Miami may have been memorable, but according to school archives it was attended by just 5,749 fans—the fewest fans at any home or road game Bowling Green played during Piepkow’s tenure. The average attendance for a MAC Saturday game in 2018 was 16,738. The average attendance for a MAC weeknight game was 12,255, a 26.8 percent dip. Ten MAC games drew 20,000 fans last year; none were played on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Six MAC games drew fewer than 7,000 fans last year; five were midweek games. Only one school, Miami (Ohio), had any November midweek game draw higher attendance than any of its Saturday games. Toledo and Western Michigan played three November weeknight home games apiece in 2018—those were each school’s three lowest-attended games of the year.

And this is all assuming that the attendance numbers are accurate. When told the Akron-Miami game he described had a listed attendance of over 12,000, Simon cracked up. “There is no way there were 12,000 people at that game,” he says. McMullen made a similar comment about the UMass game. “The stadium was 30 percent full. They said 15,000 people went.”

Last week, 0-9 Akron moved its Tuesday-night game against Eastern Michigan up to 6 p.m. due to heavy snow and 22-degree weather. Attendance was listed at 10,811. I am … skeptical of that figure.

Screenshot via ESPN

But the viewership numbers seemingly justify the decision. On a Saturday, MAC games can barely find their way on to network television channels. Take Week 8 of this season, when the MAC featured six games, all of which were played on Saturday. One was aired on CBS Sports Network, a channel that may or may not come with a cable sports package; two were on ESPN3, ESPN’s streaming service that comes with cable subscriptions; three were on ESPN+, ESPN’s new subscription-based streaming service that can be purchased without a cable subscription. I can’t tell you how many people watched: CBS Sports Network is not Nielsen-rated, and ESPN doesn’t release the streaming figures on games. But the sheer amount of searching fans would’ve had to put in to find them likely meant the totals were low.

The weeknight numbers, on the other hand, speak for themselves. Look at Week 10 of the 2015 season, when a Tuesday-night Northern Illinois–Toledo game drew 856,000 viewers, while a Wednesday-night Ohio–Bowling Green game drew 622,000. It’s tough to find any figures for Saturday MAC games, both because there are so few of them now and because most tracking sites list only the top 150 shows on cable on a given day. The last game for which I can find the number is a 2017 Buffalo–Western Michigan game on ESPNU, which drew 90,000 viewers.

Even fans who might not have enjoyed the MACtion experience in person can see the positives in this arrangement. “It’s great for me now that I’m alumni,” Simon says. “I live in Florida.”

Playing games at unusual times to grab control of unclaimed times slots is not exclusively a tactic of nonpower conferences like the MAC. Alabama head coach Nick Saban complained in September about how “the TV people” made his team play a game that started at 11 a.m. local time. Big Ten and ACC coaches have whined about the league’s new Friday-night games. Even the NFL is in on the midweek racket: Despite complaints from players, coaches, and fans about the unnaturally fast turnaround and poor quality of play on Thursdays, the league hasn’t wavered in its attempts to make Thursday Night Football a thing. This is how sports work.

Take college football bowl season, the 40-game parade of one-off matchups that serves as the culmination of the sport’s calendar. The games are played between teams with no connection to each other, as matchups are chosen by contractual ties in cities far away from the schools playing in them. Some fans make a trip of this, but not everyone is able to take time off work and pay for plane travel, hotel rooms, and tickets. MAC bowl games are played everywhere from the Bahamas (nice, but extremely pricey) to Boise (far and freezing).

And yet bowl season is a massive success, because the games are staggered so that there’s a game on TV at basically all times throughout the holidays. There’s a nationally televised college football or NFL game every day except Christmas between December 20 and January 6. Last season, 36 of the 39 bowl games drew at least a million viewers; 17 drew at least three million. Bowl season could reasonably be seen as a monument to network greed; instead, it’s regarded as one of the most beloved parts of college football.

MACtion is the same, but more extreme. It is a conference going all in on the idea that the road forward is television exposure and revenue rather than consistent in-stadium support. Bowl season adds an additional game in an unusual location to a few teams’ schedules; MACtion hammers away at home games for every MAC team, every season. MACtion has become beloved, but by the people least attached to the programs. The coaches have complaints, the players don’t see any of the money that’s brought in by the lucrative TV deal, and the MAC fans I talked to all had negative thoughts about the MACtion experience. Of course, those fans also acknowledged the importance of why the league plays games at midweek times.

There is one undisputed winner in all this: me, the college football fan. I told you this was a love story about my romance with the MAC, but I have to admit that our relationship is not exactly healthy. The league bends over backward, altering the lives of its lifelong friends, just to get my attention. The few fans who brave 20-degree weather in mainly empty stadiums on weeknights are betrayed by their loyalty. They would be in that stadium no matter when the games were played, so their interests are forgotten in favor of us channel-browsers who are available only on Tuesdays from our living rooms. To thrive, the MAC caters to part-time lovers like me, instead of the fans who would be there any day of the week.

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