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Pirate Notebook No. 336
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

East Carolina at ESPNís mercy

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Care to guess East Carolinaís football record on Sunday nights?

Itís one win and zero losses Ė an unforgettable 41-38 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl squeaker over national sweetheart Boise State.

Undefeated and untied as far as ECUís historical records can trace. Perfection.

But itís the thought of another Sunday evening edition of ECU football that is completely imperfect. Thatís if rumblings of an ESPN televised Conference USA showdown with Central Florida are true.

Recent reports from the Sunshine State have linked ECU and Central Florida to a possible Sunday shootout. Itís a part of ESPNís one-size-fits-some package for televising C-USA games, a deal that includes mostly non-traditional dates and ratings battles with your favorite rendition of Law and Order.

Truthfully, it fits most. Just not East Carolina. And if it came down to a choice between no televised games or a handful of non-Saturday ESPN showcases, ECU AD Terry Holland makes his druthers no secret.

ďWe now know and acknowledge that our football future is tied directly to personal involvement with our fans and not on television dollars or exposure,Ē Holland said.

ďAlso," added Holland, "our recruits want to play in front of a full house more than before a television audience, particularly since many of our recruits are from the immediate area and their parents and families plan to see the games in person.

ďEvery home game is available on computer now, so network TV, or even radio, is not nearly as necessary as it once was for recruiting or exposure. We are committed to doing everything possible to start ECU home games between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturdays, depending on the time of year and expected weather conditions.Ē

Thatís the right approach for East Carolina. At this stage in the programís history, the lure of television isnít nearly as attractive as a full stadium on a picturesque fall Saturday.

But, unfortunately, ECU has little choice when it comes to conference match-ups. Make that none. And with the Piratesí successful conclusion to the 2007 season and their status as a C-USA favorite in í08, the possibility of other undesirable schedule dates seems likely.

That includes Fridays. Though Holland has done everything in his power to avoid Friday nights, heís still at the mercy of ESPN executives.

ďESPN understands the need for ECU and other schools to maintain good relationships with the high schools in their state, so they will not make the request for Friday as long as they have a suitable inventory of teams that can play on Friday nights,Ē Holland said. ďThe High School Association also knows how hard we work to avoid Friday night games and would understand if and when we have to play on a Friday night.Ē

Thatís the good news. At the very least it appears ECU has already taken the necessary precautions to avoid the PR blunder it suffered in 2002 when then-athletics director Mike Hamrick blindsided the stateís high schools.

The bad news is the reality that some of ECUís conference games could be slated for non-traditional dates. Itís become fairly common for league favorites, and Southern Miss was the primary victim last year with only four of its six home games played on Saturdays.

A similar scenario would severely damage East Carolinaís attendance numbers. The Pirates have the best fan following in C-USA, and have traditionally averaged over 35,000 since Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium last expanded regardless of their record or the opponent.

With ECUís statewide and Tidewater following, weeknight games have proven a logistical pothole for fans with commutes that exceed two hours. And the last thing East Carolina needs is a midweek national stage amid a backdrop of uncovered aluminum.

Considering the lowered perceptions and reduced attendance often associated with games played on days other than Saturday, itís tempting to question C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky about the leagueís deal with ESPN. But that position is completely shortsighted.

Most C-USA schools perform poorly at the box office anyway, and that includes some of its most competitive programs. Truly, Tuesday or Wednesday nights have minimal overall effect on attendance at Houston, Southern Miss, or Tulsa, and the television spotlight helps compensate for the empty seats that exist regardless of the day on which games are played.

ECU just happens to be in the minority in the C-USA TV debate. But when it comes down to filling its 2008 lineup, ESPN is unlikely to take that into account.

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02/28/2008 12:52:22 AM

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