Pac-12 After Dark brings drama, even in the daylight.
Those late West Coast games are here to stay, however, despite criticism that they are a challenge for the league, its teams and the fans.
“We’ve got eight of what we call special date games, Thursday or Friday night games, every year. Those have been very successful for ESPN or Fox just from a purely ratings perspective. And also you don’t have the clutter, or the fragmentation of a lot of multiple games going on,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. “So they work well.”
Some have long argued the late starts in the Pac-12 mean that East Coast viewers don’t necessarily see key games, putting the league’s teams and star players at a disadvantage when it comes to poll voting or postseason award consideration.
Coaches have voiced concern about the late starts because they can wreak havoc with travel schedules and take a toll on athletes. For example, road teams that have a 7 p.m. Saturday kickoff might not be back home until early Sunday morning. If the team has to turn around to play another road game the next week, it’s at a disadvantage.
But the reality is that the league has a 12-year, $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox. Good West Coast teams are going to get those late national time slots because there is no other competition for them.
Scott, who spoke to reporters from this weekend’s evening game between Stanford and Oregon (5 p.m. start Pacific), said the league limits teams to playing just one of those games per season. Usually it’s no more than two in every three years, he said.
“They’ve been big showcases. Our broadcast partners like them because they get good ratings. We’ve got plenty of challenges in this conference with time zone, and being willing to be a little bit flexible and willing to play those has been good for our league,” he said.
Saturday’s game in Eugene, which was the “Saturday Night Football” game on ABC, was the most watched ESPN/ABC Pac-12 Conference game in nearly four years with a total live audience of 4.26 million viewers, according to ESPN. The audience peaked at nearly 6 million viewers for Stanford’s 38-31 overtime victory.
Some ticketholders aren’t fans of late start times, especially when there’s travel involved to stadiums. Take Eugene: It’s about a two-hour drive from Portland and possibly more on game day, then there’s TV timeouts that stretch the actual game before the lengthy late-night drive home.
Alumni on the opposite coast sometimes have to stay up until the wee hours to watch their teams.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre noted that his team is coming off a bye before hosting UCLA this Friday night. He said the league continues to address coaches’ scheduling concerns over late starts.
“We also understand that we are going to have to play some night games at prime time, which honestly if you’re winning games and playing at night, you’re kind of pumped about it. Would you rather play at 2 o’clock in the afternoon? Of course,” he said.
Last season, 24 games started at 7 p.m. local time or later. This year’s number hasn’t been determined because TV slots are often only determined a couple of weeks before games, not the start of the season.
Utah faced Washington two weeks ago with an 8 p.m. Mountain start time, so Utes coach Kyle Whittingham was grateful for the hour of this week’s game at Washington State.
“The 3 p.m. kick will be nice,” he said. “Getting to play a game in daylight is going to be awesome.”
TARGETING TARGETING: Scott also addressed a controversial non-call for targeting late in the Trojans’ 39-36 victory over Washington State on Friday night.
USC’s Porter Gustin made helmet-to-helmet contact with Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew at a critical juncture of the game.
Scott said he had consulted the officiating team about that call. He said every play is reviewed.
“So you can certainly assume that play got a lot of looks, not just from the replay booth at the stadium, but we’ve got our command center back in San Francisco with our head of officiating and a bunch of experienced replay guys, who absolutely would have looked at that play,” he said.
He said it also was looked at afterward and it was not determined to be targeting.
“As you know, in any given game there are a lot of close calls, and this was a very, very close one. No doubt about it,” Scott said.
At his media availability Monday, coach Mike Leach held his tongue.
“I’d be happy to comment on it if I were allowed to, but I’m not allowed to. But if I were allowed to I’d be happy to,” he said, suggesting questions be directed to the Pac-12 offices.
“Anything we do in this conference, player safety should be the forefront of our concerns,” Leach said.