Since its creation in 1973, Division II institutions have been looking for ways to increase attendance and gain exposure for their football teams. There have been several obstacles.
The first is the competition with Division I schools. Major media outlets focus their football coverage almost entirely on the major FBS schools. Ignoring the chicken or the egg argument about what's causing it, no one denies that Division I games are what a great majority of fans watching college football want to see.
Another obstacle for DII schools is the proximity to students' homes. By nature, a great majority of DII schools serve the surrounding area. They provide education for future teachers, accountants, business leaders, etc. and generally are not research institutions or law schools that draw students from thousands of miles away.
This means the students are typically from the surrounding areas and can easily go home on weekends.
Luckily, the group leading the Mountain East Conference is forward-thinking and has implemented a plan to combat both. Their flexibility in scheduling and attitude toward media exposure could be considered a model to Division II conferences battling for the attention of potential football fans.
The MEC has begun producing a game of the week - and scheduling it on Thursdays. Even coaches, who are typically resistant to non-Saturday games that can change a team's routine, have been supportive.
“It was a process through our first two years to reach a point where we grew from just a couple Thursday night games to 13 of our 70 MEC games being on Thursday night in 2015," said Reid Amos, the commissioner of the MEC. "Most notably our board of directors and our directors of athletics were very supportive and we had a lot of cooperation when we worked with each institution to cultivate a schedule where we have at least one game to feature on Thursday night over 10 weeks in 2015. Some coaches were more resistant than others, but all seemed to embrace the value of what we could create on Thursday night and overall the feedback has been very positive."
Most who have attended DII schools have experienced, at one point or another, how a campus can feel somewhat deserted on some weekends. A few MEC institutions have been described as "ghost towns" on the weekends. That can leave a football team to play in front of sparse crowds and a sterile environment.
“Thursday night has assisted with engaging students on our campuses at many of our institutions. Like many Division II conferences, many of our institutions have a high percentage of commuter students and/or students that go home on the weekends and Thursday provides an opportunity to get them more involved," Amos said. "We are seeing an increase in attendance compared to most Saturday games by highlighting a game on Thursday each week."
It is obvious that the those in charge of the game of the week and Thursday night games are very much in tune with the wants of the local football fan. Most of the schools in West Virginia compete with the University of West Virginia, Marshall, and Virginia Tech for attention. Other more westerly schools fall in what would be considered Ohio State territory.
Families now have fewer instances where they have to choose between attending a local MEC game or watching an important DI game on television.
"With as much competition as there is with Division I football between attending in person and with television, having a presence on Thursday has enhanced our ability to become more engaged with our communities as well. It is great to see and we hope to continue to grow it," said Amos.
Part of that engagement happens as a result of awareness.
In order to cultivate more awareness, the MEC has teamed with West Virginia media power Metro News. This partnership, along with the move to Thursday night games, has not only helped the bottom line when it comes to attendance, it has given the players a better atmosphere in which to play and which to be shown.
"We have been fortunate to cultivate a media package that has included seven HD broadcasts in addition to developing a 16 radio station network working with West Virginia MetroNews. Thursday night has presented a number of opportunities that I strongly believe have enhanced Mountain East Conference football and the league as a whole," said Amos.
Division II is diverse. The challenges for exposure and growth are different everywhere.
In the MEC, not every school has lights. That makes fairly scheduling games on the network somewhat difficult. However, the conference also has the advantage of a short road trips. Both of these have factored into league scheduling decisions.
"In Division II, we all try to leverage our strengths and to leverage any advantages we might have. We have some built in advantages in the MEC with a relatively compressed footprint. We have six institutions with lights and the majority of them are within a three hour drive of one another," said the commissioner. "That is a very conducive travel circumstance for Thursday play. The ‘big game’ feel that we are attempting to cultivate on Thursday night combined with the media coverage that we have is leading our institutions without lights to want to be a part of the Thursday Night Game of the Week package as well."
The move has obviously been successful to the Mountain East Conference. However, what might work in one area of the country might not work in another. But, Amos believes the Thursday model is worth a try to most Division II conferences and institutions.
"Even in conferences that don’t have the travel advantages that we have in the Mountain East, I would still think that some level of Thursday night play has the potential to be beneficial for the majority of DII football conferences."