CHARLOTTE — In an effort to raise awareness and attendance at its home football games, Wake Forest has initiated a marketing plan titled “I’m a Fan” for the upcoming 2019 season.
A more appropriate title would have been “Friday Night Lights.”
No, the Deacons didn’t sign Mike Winchell to play quarterback or replace coach Dave Clawson with Billy Bob Thornton. It’s because their first three games, two of which are at home, are on Friday nights.
The Deacons will open their season at BB&T Field against Utah State on Aug. 30, then play at Rice on Sept. 6 before returning to Winston-Salem for a highly anticipated and unconventional nonconference meeting with ACC rival North Carolina.
It’s a schedule that has evoked mixed emotions from everyone involved — from players, coaches and fans to the N.C. High School Athletic Association. But as Clawson points out, it’s not something he or anyone else associated with his program can control.
“Wake Forest is in such demand now to be on national television,” he said at the ACC’s recent Football Kickoff event in Charlotte. “That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Clawson was being sarcastic about his Deacons’ national profile, although they are the only ACC school to have won bowl games in each of the past three seasons. But there is truth in the assertion that television is responsible for the proliferation of Friday night dates.
The Utah State game will be one of the first aired by the new ACC Network. Rice was moved to accommodate Conference USA’s television package, while UNC, which was originally scheduled for a Thursday night, was switched to Friday at 6 p.m. by ESPN.
“Of course, I’d rather play on Saturdays,” Clawson said. “I’m a traditionalist. I would love Fridays to be for high school, Saturdays for college and Sundays for the NFL.”
Those lines are becoming more and more blurred every year, though, forcing everyone involved to make adjustments.
That’s especially true when it comes to recruiting. Instead of going to high school games and having personal contact with players on the first three Fridays of the upcoming season, Clawson and his staff will be on their own sideline trying to win games.
Then on Saturdays, those same coaches can do nothing but stand helplessly while their rivals get a leg up on recruits by hosting large groups of them at their stadiums.
“We play North Carolina on a Friday night and what a great game for us to have recruits come to,” Clawson said. “How many recruits are coming to it? They can’t, but it’s the new reality.
“We have an ACC Network. We have agreements with ESPN. We sign contracts. There’s revenue involved. You can complain about it, but these things help our program and they help support our programs.”
Not everyone is as philosophical about the trade-off.
High school coaches and administrators across the state have expressed their displeasure with the ACC’s decision to play on Fridays because of the effect it will have on attendance at their games.
“At the high school level, Friday night football games provide much of the revenue that underwrites other athletic opportunities for students,” NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said last spring, “which in turn may help to provide them with an opportunity to perhaps reach the next level of competition.”
Playing high school and college games on the same night will force some fans to make a choice on which to attend. That’s an even more difficult decision for parents with children playing at both levels.
“My mom and dad are not happy because we have a sophomore in high school — my brother — who’s playing on Friday nights, so that’s where it stinks,” said Deacons running back Cade Carney, a native of Advance in Davie County. “They’re going to have to make a decision. They’re torn which game to go to. I hate it for the families that have brothers.”
As for Carney, playing on Friday nights won’t feel any different than playing any other night of the week, especially since all of the Deacons’ Friday dates are in consecutive weeks at the start of the season.
“From the perspective of a guy who’ll be playing in them, it will be Saturday to me because we start the season with it and there’s no adjustment,” he said.
According to teammate Justin Strnad, there’s at least one major upside to Wake’s unconventional early schedule.
“I’ll take Friday night over noon 100-degree game any day of the week,” the senior linebacker said. “I think it’s going to be an awesome opportunity.”