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The TV Monster

Television has been referred to as the monster of the sports world. And with good reason. TV has dramatically changed sports in America—for better and for worse. More than any other single factor, it has fueled the tremendous growth, insatiable demand, and astronomical salaries that characterize sports in this country.

TV is now the number one source of income for all major sports leagues in the U.S., college and professional, far outstripping ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising. It influences—and in many cases dictates—when, where and how games are played. It impacts how leagues are organized and opponents are scheduled. How players are recruited, drafted and evaluated. How games are officiated and ties are broken. How results are reported and heroes are created. How coaches make decisions and universities hire administrators.

All in all, TV has had such a profound effect that many believe it now controls sports in America. And to a large extent, it does.

This is a fascinating and ever-evolving subject, one that has spawned books, daily media criticism, and even college courses (including one I teach at Stanford). There isn’t room here to go into all the issues, so we’ll focus today on the one that has been percolating recently, particularly here in the Pacific Time Zone.

We’ve commented in this space many times before about the unfortunate plethora of late night games for West Coast teams and how it affects attendance, home field advantage, and Pac-12 players’ Heisman Trophy hopes.

The debate took on some new flavor in recent days with comments on both sides from some pretty high-profile folks, including head coaches Chris Petersen of Washington and David Shaw of Stanford, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

Petersen Volleys: Petersen, whose Huskies are ranked No. 5 in the nation and once again competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, got things started by commenting last week that the late kickoffs are “painful” and that “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…Everyone wants to play in the day time.”

He’s right.

Stanford Follows: Shaw, after Stanford’s 23-20 victory over Utah, which was decided by Bryce Love’s scintillating 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, reportedly told the assembled media after the game, “Please, call somebody on the East Coast and let them know what happened in the second half. Because I guarantee they missed it.”

Right again. Love’s run occurred at exactly 12:58 a.m. on the East Coast. Few Heisman voters, most of whom have gray hair and live East of the Mississippi, were still awake to see it. Conversely, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, considered by most experts to be the Heisman front-runner ahead of Love, was held to just 75 yards rushing but scored on a 53-yard run at about 2:30 p.m. Eastern. It was then shown a thousand times on every pre-game, halftime and post-game highlights show all day long and throughout the evening.

The Commish Responds: Scott, in a chat with the media at the Cal-Washington game, not surprisingly defended the late starting times and tied them to the conference’s lucrative TV contracts. “In an ideal world, I’d like to get all the revenue the schools want, all the exposure they want and be able to pick the kickoff times, but that world doesn’t exist.”

Right yet again. If the presidents and athletic directors of Pac-12 schools want to sign a 12-year, $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox—so they can afford to pay for ever-increasing coaching salaries, state-of-the-art facilities, and recruiting budgets—then everyone (including the coaches who rake in those salaries and demand those facilities) must accept the fact that they have sold their soul to the TV devil. As part of the deals, the networks control the kickoff times, and they will want to start Pac-12 games between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. to fill the last broadcasting window on Saturday nights (as well as on occasional Thursdays and Fridays).

The Pac-12, unfortunately, is a victim of geography. You can’t start a Big Ten game at 8:00 p.m. Pacific, because it’s 11:00 p.m. in Columbus. But you can start Pac-12 games at that time. So, a number of Pac-12 teams are going to play late every week.

This wasn’t a problem 35 years ago when there was only one game a week on television, or even 15 years ago, before the proliferation of TV networks carrying college football. But in an era when you have 50 or more games televised every weekend on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ABC, Fox, FS1, NBC, CBS, CBSSN, and the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 Networks, somebody has to provide content for late night viewing.

As we’ve noted previously, the downside is that these late times hurt ticket sales (at least on the West Coast), Heisman Trophy candidacies, and yes, the welfare of the student-athlete. Late games translate into red-eye flights and, in the case of Thursday or Friday night games, lots of missed class time.

Herbstreit’s High Horse: I’m a Kirk Herbstreit fan, but on Saturday he displayed some misplaced indignation, scolding Washington’s Petersen for his remarks earlier in the week and reminding Coach Pete that he “should be thanking ESPN for actually having a relationship, thanks to Larry Scott, with the Pac-12, because now your games are seen.”

Set aside for a moment the belligerent and arrogant tone. One might argue that Herbstreit has it backward. ESPN should be thanking Petersen for providing exciting content for his network to carry. The honchos at ESPN are paying millions of dollars to air college football because they know the games will draw viewers, advertisers and cable subscribers.

As for the “now your games are seen” comment, it’s laughable, because it implies Washington’s games wouldn’t be seen without Larry Scott or ESPN. Wrong on both counts. Pac-12 games were televised long before Scott, and, as noted above, there are lots of other networks ready, willing and eager to air Husky games.

The Bottom Line: As part of future negotiations, the Pac-12 needs to insist on more 5:00 p.m. kickoffs, rather than 7:00 or 8:00, and fewer Thursday and Friday night games. It may cost a few bucks, but it’ll pay dividends at the gate, in the classroom and on the Heisman ballot.

Alibaba: In a related note, the Pac-12 announced a partnership with Chinese media and e-commerce giant Alibaba, which will include streaming rights to 175 events per year. All very visionary and forward thinking, as the industry is changing rapidly. But unfortunately there are no Heisman voters in China.

In Case You Missed It: Find the highlights of the Arizona-Colorado game and check out Arizona’s backup quarterback Khalil Tate’s performance, which was reminiscent of Bryce Love’s outburst the week before against ASU. Tate rushed for 327 yards and had TD runs of 58, 28, 47 and 75 yards. He won’t be a backup for long.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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