By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) I love baseball’s spring training.
There’s the balmy weather. There’s the soothing cadence of the sport. And there’s the competition between guys wearing different sets of laundry.
The actual games don’t mean much, of course. They’re just exhibitions, after all. But, nevertheless, it’s always more entertaining to watch your favorite team take on a true opposing one than it is to watch the lethargy and lack of luster in any intrasquad scrimmage.
Which is the reason why spring football stinks.
Now, I’m a huge college football fan, but I’ve really never understood the appeal of the “Spring Game,” which involves a school just competing against itself with absolutely nothing on the line. For example, a final score of “White 21, Red 20” just doesn’t carry the same cachet as a final that reads “Wisconsin 21, Iowa 20,” does it?
Over the years, I’ve been to several spring games down at the University of Illinois. And each time that I’ve sat at Memorial Stadium for a spring game, I’ve felt quite bored before leaving – usually early – feeling highly underwhelmed. And I don’t think that’s just because the Fighting Illini have often stunk.
Across the country, schools everywhere stage similar Spring Game scrimmages to cap off their springtime football practices. Some of them draw enormous crowds, particularly down in the SEC where football dominates the headlines year-round.
This year, for example, Alabama’s national champions attracted 78,256 for their spring game, followed by conference foes Georgia (44,117), Auburn (43,427), Florida (38,000), South Carolina (34,513) and LSU (33,000). Elsewhere, Texas drew 46,000 fans while Florida State counted a crowd of 40,631.
Up here in Big Ten country, some schools do draw similarly whopping numbers for their spring games. Ohio State this month actually attracted the largest crowd in the country with 81,112 fans showing up at the Horseshoe to watch Urban Meyer wear a headset.
Penn State, meanwhile, drew 60,000 to support its embattled program. Nebraska had expected a similar crowd before inclement weather canceled its game on April 14. And up in Ann Arbor, Michigan counted 25,000 at its spring game, while Iowa drew a respectable 15,000 over in Iowa City.
Other Big Ten schools, however, see much smaller crowds. Illinois this year attracted only 3,000 fans, while Minnesota was just a bit better with 3,500. Indiana and Purdue also saw weather also cancel their games, but it’s doubtful their fans cared all that much. And no one seems to know exactly how many attended Northwestern’s spring game, assuming that anyone did.
This Saturday, Michigan State and Wisconsin will hold their spring games, although Badgers coach Bret Bielema seems to find his team’s annual scrimmage just as dull as I do.
Last year, for the game Bielema shook things up by pitting his No. 1 offense against his No. 1 defense in the hopes that it would generate a big performance and a big crowd. He got neither, as the Badgers’ offense managed just a single field goal in front of only about 10,000 fans.
“It is what it is,” Bielema lamented Monday about the college spring game’s inherent lack of excitement. “What I want to do is create as great an environment as I can that’s similar to what Camp Randall will be like in the fall, which I know it’ll never get to that point.”
No, it won’t. But could it get closer to it?
I think that’s possible based upon another idea pitched by Bielema, who said that he’s intrigued with the notion of scrimmaging against another Big Ten team or teams during spring ball.
“We’ve even thrown around the idea of maybe having three teams come to one spot and playing a couple halves against one another,” Bielema explained. “I think it’d be great if we could do that moving forward.”
Bielema said that he thinks financial issues could prevent rival Big Ten schools from facing each other in spring games. But I’m not so sure that would have to be the case, and it would be great if the Big Ten could open its mind to the possibilities.
For example, one proposal could be for each of the Big Ten’s protected football rivalries – e.g. Illinois vs. Northwestern, Wisconsin vs. Minnesota, etc. – to face each other in a scrimmage each spring.
The site of the scrimmage could alternate between campuses on an annual basis, with the Big Ten Network televising some games, while perhaps ESPN would televise others. I’d have to think that a scrimmage between Ohio State and Michigan or Nebraska vs. Penn State would be able to attract some national eyeballs and advertising.
The Big Ten then could take the total ticket and TV revenues from all spring games and divvy them up evenly among conference members, just like they do with the conference’s current TV money.
Another option could be for the Big Ten to sort teams into groups of three and, as Bielema suggested, have them face off against each other at a different location that would rotate each spring. Potential options for these groups of three could be Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State; Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue; Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana; and Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
I’d have to think such an experiment would also generate some national appeal in terms of television coverage and advertising. And I’m quite certain that any option where Big Ten schools are pitted against each other, rather than against themselves, would make spring games far more entertaining than they are now.
And even more entertaining than spring training, too.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.