Ray Wild was cold. Really cold. Cold enough he was almost sure he would drop his Air Force football season tickets, the ones he’s enjoyed for 31 seasons.
Ultra-late night games have discouraged and bewildered Air Force’s most devoted fans, and Wild is one of the discouraged and bewildered.
Going to Saturday night’s game vs. Utah State? Be sure to pack the parka. Kickoff is, in repeat defiance of sanity, set for 8:15 at Falcon Stadium.
Wild lettered four seasons (1972-1975) as a safety for the Falcons, starting his last three. He battled, under Ben Martin’s direction, against Notre Dame’s Joe Montana and CU’s Buffs. As a fan, he’s watched Chad Hennings, Dee Dowis, Beau Morgan, Chris Gizzi, Chad Hall, Carson Bird and Jalen Robinette.
He’s a devout fan.
But after Air Force’s late-night loss to Wyoming on Nov. 11, Wild was ready to surrender. He departed for the game on Saturday. He returned home on Sunday.
“I was frozen to the bone for two hours,” Wild said of his return home. “It wasn’t fun. It hurts to be there at night in November.
“You don’t like being in the meat locker.”
The meat locker experience is the curse of peak football. Football rules American sport, towering above all competition. This rule has led to strange and destructive decisions.
Air Force officials do not choose to play games at night, but they have, as members of the Mountain West, handed control of game time to ESPN, the worldwide leader in chasing fans from stadiums. For the past three weeks, ESPN has placed Air Force in the dastardly 8:15 p.m. time slot.
Starting a football game at 8:15 is bad for football, just in general, but that’s what peak football has brought us. Ever been to, say, Yosemite National Park in the middle of August? Mobs of people everywhere, terrifying deer, ruining the very idea of solitude, which is why tourists flock to Yosemite. It’s the same with football in 2017. We, as a nation, love the game so much that we’re destroying it.
A deeply devoted, and deeply lost, college football fan in the Mountain Time Zone can start watching games on Saturday morning and watch, nonstop, into the small hours of Sunday morning.
The game that fan will watch late Saturday night will likely include a tiny, unhappy, chilly crowd of fans. Nobody – well, almost nobody – wakes up on a Saturday morning in November and says, “Wow, what a great day to watch football in person at midnight!”
The Falcons, as members of the MW, receive between $1.1 million and $1.2 million in television money each year. Almost all of the TV money comes from football. This is the payment for really dumb kickoff times.
Air Force officials hear often from enraged fans who want games to start in the sunshine and warmth found most Saturdays at 1 p.m. Air Force officials wish games started at 1 p.m., too.
“Fan frustration with late and variable kickoff times in Falcon Stadium is certainly understandable,” athletic director Jim Knowlton wrote recently to disgruntled fans. “And while we may not agree with the methodology, it is the way collegiate athletics currently operates.”
He’s right. TV revenue has become more important than the fan base. The opportunity to make money by offering games to a TV viewer in, say, Fargo, trumped the need to sell a ticket to a fan in Monument.
This trumping comes with massive cost. In 2010, the Falcons averaged 40,093 fans per game. Last season, the Falcons averaged 29,587.
When Wild began our conversation, he was leaning toward joining the Air Force fan exodus and ending his days – and cold nights – as a season-ticket holder.
By the end of the talk, he changed his mind. He’ll renew for 2018, even though it means more freezing nights for a man who will turn 64.
“You twisted my arm,” he said.
Come on, Ray. No twisting on my part.
Ray went with his heart, which has long belonged to the Falcons. He’s a primo fan, stubbornly loyal as he swims against a corrupting, polluting tide of TV money.
But remember, there are not many Ray Wilds out there.