MISSOULA — It's the biggest sports week of the season with the state games wrapped around Montana's Super Bowl — the Brawl of the Wild.
Tradition is a proud commodity for Montanans and their sports, but one custom that needs to change is that four of the five state championship football games are played the same day, and at the same time, when Montana and Montana State take the field against one another.
I've been working in Montana media since 2016, and by now am used to the schedule. You know that state championships and the Brawl will be right before Thanksgiving, but it's something that's never quite made sense to me for a number of reasons.
The Cat-Griz football game is arguably Montana's biggest unofficial holiday and is the most impactful sporting event in the state. Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who is involved in the game. It's an old and historic rivalry that's filled with state pride and should be treated as such.
The game is quintessentially Montanan, and we love it for that.
What isn't right is that the state championship football games on that Saturday are buried under the shadow of the Brawl. The Class A, B, 8-Man and 6-Man games sometimes are lost in the shuffle because the state's focus is directed toward Bozeman or Missoula every year.
It's not fair to the kids, their families, or the towns that often host these games.
These people are football fans just like the rest of us, and playing in a state championship game is what they work toward all season. Why should they have to choose between watching the Cat-Griz game or watching (or participating in) a state title game? Why should those at state championships be relegated to hearing score updates from the Brawl over the PA or constantly refreshing their phones?
Some, even, have family members playing in the Cat-Griz game AND in a state championship game. How is that fair to family members or friends? For some players, their only Cat-Griz experience is seeing the final score after their game concludes.
Plenty of Montana's football fans are alienated by a schedule that needs to be reworked. In the fall, state golf gets its tournament, state soccer gets two weeks of playoffs, and cross country and volleyball get their large events undeterred by a larger sporting event so they get their moment in the sun.
Football deserves the same. Even the Class AA game on the Friday night before the game feels overshadowed.
How that should work is yet to be determined. Over the years I've heard it thrown around that the state championships should be held in the opposite venue where the Brawl is. While interesting, I do like that small-town communities get the opportunity to host games that their teams earned throughout the year.
The solution feels like it lies with moving the state championships up one week. All of them, that way the aforementioned sports all get their meets and tournaments uninterrupted while football finally gets a weekend where the championships are the biggest game in town. Whether that means putting all five on a Saturday, or keeping the format now of AA on Friday and the rest of Saturday, at least now the oxygen in the room would mostly belong to them.
Now, does that mean fall sports start a week earlier? Not necessarily. One area of exploration could be shortening the playoff seasons. Often, the first round of the football playoffs is blowout central, especially in the smaller school classifications. Shrinking the postseason to eight teams from 16 could be an option, while Class AA could just gets rid of the play-in round (that previously didn't exist anyway) and stay with a nine-game regular season schedule. District tournaments should go in all sports, and soccer doesn't need the first round of top seeds playing the lowest seeds in the tournament.
Just suggestions, but there are options to alter the schedule to make this work.
Then, with high school sports in the books, players and coaches get the week off before Cat-Griz to watch on gameday (or not) but they aren't competing directly with it. Plus, a longer break between fall and winter sports isn't the worst idea, is it?
It's a special time to be a sports fan or reporter this time of the year. And as mentioned, tradition and nostalgia are powerful tools in Montana.
But it's time the sports community adapts to the times and recognizes that the state championships deserve their own weekend, free of the Brawl. Everything stops for the actual Super Bowl, so why not the one here in the 406?