Ah the start of high school football season. The crackle of brown grass underfoot, the smell of sunscreen, the late start times due to excessive heat. It all brings back so many memories. I know that for most of us those things bring to mind late summer, which they should. But trust me when I tell you that from now on, they’ll mean high school football to you.
We enjoyed the earliest start to the Missouri high school football season ever this fall. People always talk in the off season about how they can’t wait for football to start again and, by golly, MSHSAA has done something about it. With the exception of last season, every season opener since 2006 has been the earliest we’ve ever had.
Before 2006, the only time the season had started in August was in 2001 when the first kickoff was the last day of the month, the 31st. From ‘87 to ’05, the season kicked off the first week of September, and prior to ’87, it was the second week of September, as teams only played a nine-game regular season schedule, a tradition dating back to the 20’s and beyond.
But oh how things have changed in the last nine years. From August 31st again in ’06, to the 30th in ’07, the 29th in both ’08 and ’09, the 27th in ’10, the 26th in ’11, to August 24th in 2012. And while we did take a step back last year with the 30th, this year’s start date of August 22nd will start another run forward in the start of the season, culminating in 2017 when the season will start on August 18th.
And with the season starting earlier, practice starts earlier. In both 2016 and 2017, all fall teams will be able to start practicing in July.
The primary reason for this is to maintain the tradition of the state championship games being held on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving. Now I love great traditions in general and this one in particular. Having the Show-Me Bowl after Thanksgiving allows more people to attend and gives it an even more special air. I love it. And if that was the only reason, I could understand. But we live in 21st century America and money has to rear its head.
The real reason that MSHSAA has been forced to start the season earlier is the expansion of the season. From the eight- or nine-game season that existed for decades, the introduction of the state playoffs in 1968 added the possibility of two more games for each team: the state semifinals and finals.
That grew quickly with quarterfinal games being introduced in 1975, district games starting to appear in 1980, sectionals for all classes in 1988 taking the place of districts, and regionals in 2008, which for the first time gave teams the possibility of playing 15 games in a year. The final factor is the change this season to eliminate playoff games during the week. No more Wednesday and Monday games resulted in another week being added to the season.
Another reason in play is money, of course. In that first playoff year of ’68, MSHSAA had 12 games that they could collect gate fees from. Last season, with the introduction of the district playoff structure, MSHSAA collected funds from 332 football contests. And that doesn’t include the 8-man playoffs.
But lest we throw this all at the feet of MSHSAA, there is plenty of blame to go around. More games mean more revenues for schools, booster clubs, and other groups that use these games to fundraise. It means more advertising revenue for radio stations that broadcast the contests. And more highlights to fill up sportscasts and highlight shows and draw in more viewers. Additionally, for the most part MSHSAA just follows the direction of its member schools. So expansion of the regular season and the playoffs was something that came from the administrators and coaches involved.
And finally, the fans aren’t off the hook either. They are the ones who can’t wait for football season to start, and never want it to end. So in their book, there is no such thing as too many games.
“What’s the big deal?” some say. MSHSAA has regulations in place restricting practice during peak heat hours, and teams have figured out how to handle the heat with proper hydration, rest, practicing during cooler times, etc. But as we so tragically know, some players have undiagnosed problems that just a little extra time in too much heat can bring to light too late. And from a purely statistical standpoint, longer seasons lead to more injuries.
Finally, as I alluded to in my opening, the very experience of the start of high school football season is getting diluted. Crisp, cool nights wearing a jacket or sweatshirt are being replaced by shorts and just sweat. Instead of seeing if the leaves are changing color, we’re watching to see if the grass is brown from heat.
What are we to do? Trust me when I say there is no good solution, and certainly no perfect one. Do we cut games? In the current economic condition that most schools find themselves in, any reduction in funds is dangerous. Even though most schools and MSHSAA don’t make nearly the amount of money from games that you think, they can’t afford the loss.
How about pushing the end of the season back? If the season starts in September, it won’t end until December. Not only would that cut into basketball season for schools involved in the playoffs, it also means the possibility of bad weather and intrudes on the busiest time of the year. Just ask any parent or teacher.
Compact the playoffs again? To do that you would have to fit six games, starting with the first round of districts, into four weeks. That greatly increases the chance of injury for players on the teams involved. And with teams having less time to prepare and rest, it frankly would make for football that isn’t that good.
It all adds up to the times are a changing once again. And resisting change is as futile as trying to keep the Rolling Stones from doing another tour. The best advice I can give you is to hope for the best, treasure your memories, adapt to the changes, and look on the good side.
For instance, from now on the smell of suntan lotion will put you in the mood for football. And you can now use going to the football game as an excuse to not water your lawn. See, change is good.