On Saturday, the Princeton-Yale football game will reach 3.1 million homes in New England.

The 3 p.m. tape-delay start will mark the fourth broadcast of Yale football on regional cable this year, the largest presence the Eli 11 has had on television since the late 1980s.

This new-found publicity comes with a significant price tag of nearly $25,000 per game. But Yale’s administrators say the rewards outweigh the costs.

And, if the athletics department can secure alumni support and a partner on the airwaves, Yale’s sports coverage will become even more comprehensive.

The History

The Yale football program is no stranger to the small screen.

Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the Bulldogs appeared on the major national networks almost annually. In those years, though, Yale was still in college football’s Division I-A and the Ivy League was no stranger in the nation’s Top 25

But big time college football, with athletics scholarships and burgeoning budgets, gradually displaced the Elis from the apex of national prestige. With Yale’s lost prominence went its national coverage.

The Elis last appeared on one of the Big Three networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) in 1981, when ABC picked up the Dartmouth-Yale game. For the rest of that decade, PBS and ESPN provided regular coverage of Eli football. But in the ’90s, a smattering of games on regional cable television and DirecTV satellite network were the only appearances the Bulldogs made on TV screens.

This year, Yale made a concerted effort to return the Bulldogs to television, with the team’s four road games airing on the New England Sports Network. A fifth game would have also been broadcast on NESN but was canceled because of the national tragedy on Sept. 11.

“We wanted to keep the promotion of the tercentennial year going through the fall,” said Tom Beckett, director of athletics.

Televising Yale football games was a natural choice, he said.

The Costs

In recent years, the Ivy League has attempted to get a leaguewide television package, a move Beckett favors. Last year, the Ancient Eight was in serious discussions with DirecTV to broadcast football, men’s and women’s basketball, and other sports. A potential deal fell through when the conference could not sell enough advertising to cover the estimated $350,000 to $500,000 cost of the package, said Jeff Orleans ’67 LAW ’71, the executive director of the Ivy League.

“Advertisers are interested in football and men’s basketball. As the economy slowed, we couldn’t get them interested in other sports,” Orleans said.

The consensus among league administrators is that any television deal should be entirely self-supported by advertising sales.

“There is a general feeling that as useful as television can be, it has to be an expense that comes after you have paid for the basic concerns of a very broad-based program,” Orleans added.

With the Ivy League unable to strike a deal, Yale took the initiative to get itself on television. Unlike the league model, Yale did not seek advertising dollars to support its television exposure. Yale’s broadcasts are institutionally funded, an option unavailable to some Ivy League schools.

“It is something that would be cost-prohibitive at this time,” said Al Langer, Columbia University’s sports information director. “At this level, it basically costs schools money — they don’t make money on it.”

For Yale, that cost is approximately $25,000 per broadcast. The funds come from three sources: the athletics department, the President’s Office and the Tercentennial Office, Beckett said.

“This was a Yale University initiative, not just a Yale athletics one,” said Wayne Dean, director of marketing for the athletics department.

The Benefits

Since Yale does not need to sell ads to fund the broadcasts, it uses the commercial time allotted to it by NESN to air spots promoting Yale and its athletics.

The commercials, produced in conjunction with the Tercentennial Office, feature captains of various sports clad in the traditional white sweaters with a blue “Y” talking about their Yale experience while scenes of the campus fade in and out in the background.

But the NESN broadcasts are more than just a three and a half hour infomercial.

“It was very important for us to get our [away] games to our fans and to students on campus,” Dean said.

Since Comcast Cable does not carry NESN in much of the New Haven area, a special agreement was needed to air games in the Yale vicinity. Comcast agreed to televise the games on the campus cable network, Channel 8. But Comcast and NESN could not find mutually amenable terms to broadcast the games in New Haven, so many Yale fans are in the dark for the broadcasts.

In most parts of New England, NESN is available, so Beckett and Dean both said Yale football is reaching important branches of their fan base.

“The feedback has been unbelievably favorable — from alums, general fans, Connecticut residents [and] parents,” Dean said.

In addition to being on NESN, the broadcasts are available via satellite. Dean said Yale clubs from around the country have requested the satellite coordinates for the broadcasts.

The exposure has also benefited the football team’s recruiting efforts. Head coach Jack Siedlecki said his office has received numerous e-mails from prospective players who became interested in Yale football from watching the broadcast. It also gives those recruits who are unable to come to New Haven to see a game an opportunity to watch the Bulldogs play.

Yale chose to air only away games in the hopes that it would attract more people to come to the Yale Bowl for home games and entice more people to attend Yale sporting events in general. Beckett said that the Mondays after the weekends of televised football games, the ticket sales office is busier than normal answering phones, and he speculated that men’s hockey ticket sales have done exceedingly well in part because of this general promotion of Yale sports.

But attendance figures at home games show no increase over last year. Through four home games in 2000 — versus Dayton (Yale’s 800th win), Holy Cross, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia — Yale averaged 24,010 fans per game. After four home contests this year — Cornell, Dartmouth, Fordham, Brown — Yale is averaging just over 19,000 per game.

The Future

Although regarded as a success, the athletics department is not sure whether football will again be broadcast next year.

“We are going to have sit down when this is over and weigh the benefits and the costs,” Dean said.

The financial support of the President’s Office and Tercentennial Office was instrumental in getting the NESN deal worked out this year, Beckett said. Without that support next year, the athletics department would have to pay for a television deal through alumni funds.

But even as the football broadcasts are still up in the air for next year, the athletics department is in the early stages of creating a broader, more comprehensive Yale sports television ensemble.

Beckett said the athletics department is currently working on an agreement to broadcast men’s hockey this season and in the future would like to add men’s basketball, women’s basketball, soccer and lacrosse to a Yale television package. He even wants to create a local Yale television sports show.

“We will explore every opportunity to continue to market Yale athletics,” Beckett said. “We are looking for much broader reach.”