Not The Game

If you were browsing through your cable television channels last weekend, you might have stumbled across the most historic sports series in American history. More historic than the World Series of baseball, which was first played in 1903. And even more historic than the Olympic Games, which were first held in 1896.

What series might you have seen? It was the Harvard / Yale annual football game, first played in 1875 and now simply known as The Game. Except for breaks during the first and second world wars, the teams have faced off every year since the dawn of the industrial age. Under Walter Camp, a player on Yale’s 1876 team who later became the father of American football, the game grew into the business juggernaut that dominates our modern sports world.

“Modern,” though, is a relative concept. Had you attended any football game at the Yale Bowl prior to last weekend, you would have taken a seat in a stadium that has never installed permanent lights for night games. Yale is the only team in the Ivy League that plays all of its games during the daylight hours, the way that Walter Camp played football in the 1870s.

Nevertheless, at least temporarily, the day-time tradition did change last weekend. Why? Because this year, for the first time in history, The Game was played into the evening hours under the lights. NBC Sports wanted to televise it, and noted that it could generate higher television ratings by broadcasting into the evening. So Yale University installed a temporary field lighting system, and The Game entered the modern age.

For the fans, of course, a night event under the lights on a chilly November evening is not The Game that was played in the sunlight of an autumn afternoon. The essential fan experience is a different one, whether one is watching in the stands or on television.

Isn’t it ironic, though, that NBC Sports was initially drawn to televising The Game because of its historic nature … and then modified the essential fan experience in pursuit of higher ratings? Although Yale undoubtedly shared in the wealth that was generated by the shift to evening hours, it sacrificed a daytime tradition that was uniquely historic in nature.