Urban Meyer, not a fan of all the night games. (Mel Evans/AP)
In 2011, the Pac-12 agreed to a new television deal with ESPN and Fox in which the networks would pay the conference $3 billion over 12 years to televise its sporting events, mainly football and men’s basketball. This was heralded as a good thing, at least for the schools’ bank accounts: Each conference member would receive nearly $21 million annually over the course of the deal. For then-conference newcomers Colorado and Utah, it was seen as a great thing: The Buffaloes were getting only around $9 million annually in television money as a member of the Big 12, the Utes less than $2 million in the Mountain West.
But the devil is in the details, as they say. The TV deal called for four annual Pac-12 football games apiece on Thursday and Friday nights, plus a new ESPN slot mainly reserved for Pac-12 football on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time, otherwise known as bedtime for many on the East Coast. And now some are wondering whether this added exposure, such as it is, is worth all that money.
“I just want to say something to our fans: We apologize for these late games,” Washington Coach Chris Petersen said Oct. 2. “And I’d also like to reiterate it has nothing to do with us or the administration. We want to play at 1 o’clock. It hurts us tremendously in terms of national exposure. No one wants to watch our game on the East Coast that late, and we all know it.
“We haven’t had a kickoff before 5 o’clock this season. And so it’s painful for our team, it’s painful for our administration and we know certainly the most important part is for our fans.”
Petersen’s comments, made as his team was preparing for consecutive 7:45 p.m. (Pacific time) kickoffs against Cal and Arizona State on ESPN, were not warmly welcomed by all at the network, and the blowback was given voice by Kirk Herbstreit last Saturday on “College Gameday.”
“As an advocate on this show for the Pac-12 for the last 20 years, wanting to try to bring as much exposure to that conference as we can, you should be thanking ESPN for actually having a relationship thanks to [conference commissioner] Larry Scott with the Pac-12 because now your games are seen,” he said.
And the late games are seen, despite Petersen’s contention otherwise. An ESPN executive told Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times that, over the first five years of the Pac-12’s TV deal, national viewership for conference football games after 9 p.m. has been 12 percent greater than for those played in the afternoon. When looking at Pac-12 games that are televised on ESPN2, viewership is 72 percent greater than games played during the day. And it’s not simply coming from West Coast viewers.
“Last year, not only was the average national audience bigger for late-night Pac-12 games, the East/Central region audiences (defined as everything east of the Rockies) were bigger, too,” Calkins writes. “Early Pac-12 kickoffs drew 60 percent of their audience from the East/Central region versus 40 percent from the Pacific region. Late Pac-12 kickoffs, meanwhile, drew 65 percent of their audience from the East/Central versus 35 percent from the Pacific.”
And it’s not like the Pac-12 is getting shafted in terms of the postseason or national recognition, either. One of its teams has played in the College Football Playoff in two of its three years of existence, including Petersen’s Huskies last year. In 2014, the conference even produced a Heisman Trophy winner in Oregon’s Marcus Mariota even though eight of his games that season started at 8 p.m. or later on the East Coast.
But now another coach — a bigger name than Petersen, and one whose team sees the Pacific Ocean only during trips to the Rose Bowl — is speaking out against all the night games, and he’s framing it in a way that no network representative will be able to dismiss as sour grapes. Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer isn’t worried about exposure — like the Buckeyes need more of that — or inconvenienced fans. He’s worried about the players (who, lest we forget, are not directly seeing one dime of this TV money).
“I understand TV contracts are kind of ruling, but when you start talking about student-athletes, they shouldn’t have to play four night games on the road,” Meyer said Wednesday. “I talked to [Ohio State AD] Gene Smith about it and I’m going to bring it up to our commissioner, [Jim Delany]. We’ll find out if we really do care about getting home at four o’clock in the morning four times. You don’t do that.”
“In my opinion, very strong opinion, when I start thinking about players and what’s expected of them during the week, if you can’t recover, you don’t get those hours back,” Meyer continued. “I’m talking about academically, I’m talking about just your body, and the student-athlete welfare. They should not play four night games on the road.”
The Buckeyes travel to Nebraska on Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. EDT kickoff, their third night road game of the season with at least one more — Nov. 4 at Iowa — likely still to come. According to the Toledo Blade’s Nicholas Piotrowicz, Ohio State doesn’t get back on campus until somewhere around 4 or 5 a.m. after such games.
“Night games are fun, but at the same time, you get back super late and it throws off our sleeping,” Ohio State left tackle Jamarco Jones said. “You can’t really get much sleep because we still have to come in and practice that day. It isn’t fun at all, really.”
In July, the Big Ten formally announced its new television deal with ESPN and Fox, one that will pay its schools $2.64 billion over just six years. It probably will buy the networks a lot of night games.
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