Pacific Time has been a problem for the Pac-12 since time immemorial, but the challenge becomes more daunting each season with the current television contracts, sports media cycles and consumer behavior.
Combine all the night football games on ESPN/ESPN2 and FS1 with all the broadcasts on the limited-reach Pac-12 Networks, and too much of the conference’s premium product — its greatest marketing tool — is seen by too few fans too often.
Certainly, more wins would enhance exposure.
“You want a prime-time window on Saturday, it takes Washington beating Auburn,” said ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore, who played for Stanford and lives in the Bay Area.
“Or this year, it takes Oregon beating Auburn. That’s top-10 stuff. That makes you more compelling.”
But could the underlying structure of the football schedule be tweaked to create more opportunities in front of larger audiences?
Is there a way to solve the reach issue, to negate the time-zone challenge?
The Hotline has a plan: Play a select number of games at 9 a.m. (Pacific) on Pac-12 campuses.
(Actually, the official kickoff time would be more like 9:07 a.m.)
We’ve previously suggested changes to Pac-12 football scheduling and operations. The Hotline believes, for example, that the Sunday of Labor Day should be used for a doubleheader; that the conference needs a football competition committee; that nonconference games be played in November; that the Pac-12 championship game, if moved to Las Vegas, could be paired with basketball to create a weekend sports festival; and that the conference should follow the NHL’s lead and create a Twitter feed dedicated to explaining controversial officiating decisions.
But starting football games at 9 a.m. might be our most extreme suggestion. The Hotline’s crack research staff hasn’t worked out all the details, but the basics are as follows:
- Play four home games per year — not four per team per year, four total — in the early window. One date would be an early-September, nonconference duel; the others should be conference games scattered across the regular season.
- Create a three-year rotation, so each school is the host for one 9 a.m. game per cycle.
- Make sure no team serves as both 9 a.m. host and visitor in the same year; there could be no more than one early game per program over the regular season. (The exception: If a team has a non-conference road game in the Eastern Time Zone that gets slotted for 9 a.m.)
- Set the host rotation years in advance so that each school knows when the early kickoff is coming, then announce the specific date in the late winter or spring.
The 9 a.m. games cannot be part of the six- and 12-day in-season selection process. Like the Friday night kickoffs, they must be made public months ahead.
The advanced notice would allow fans to plan and give the schools time to create marketing/promotional opportunities around the early kickoff — either football-specific celebrations or daylong festivities across campus.
If you’re playing at 9 a.m., make it about more than just a game and give students a reason to crawl out of bed.
Key point: Early games at Colorado and Utah would start at 10 a.m. on campus — that extra hour is significant — and the Arizona schools would provide the same opportunity starting in November.
“We’re at the point now that these things have to be on the table,’’ Fox analyst and former Washington quarterback Brock Huard said.
“The biggest frustration I hear is that people don’t know when the games will be played. If you have the Friday games and then three or four games at 9 a.m. on Saturday, then you can get more of the schedule set.
“In this day and age, if people don’t have time to plan, it’s hard to get butts in the seats.”
Now, let’s address the issues with early starts …
It’s not necessarily the imposition on players and coaches that you might think.
A handful of programs already practice in the mornings during the regular season (Washington, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA to name four), and the road team would be home before dinner.
My guess is the early wake-up required for pregame meal, followed by a regular Saturday night, would be far less disruptive to sleep cycles than returning to campus at 5 a.m. on Sunday and a normal routine for Monday morning classes.
(If the 9 a.m. kickoff were guaranteed to replace a 7:30 p.m. start, all the better — it would help normalize the overall schedule for players and coaches alike.)
Fans would undoubtedly hate the early kickoffs, but maybe not all fans. Many despise the night games and might prefer leaving the house at 6 a.m., as opposing to getting home at 1 a.m.
On this matter, however, consideration would have to be given to schools reliant upon fans coming from longer distances.
An early start could be more disruptive to Oregon, which draws heavily from Portland (two hours away), than to Arizona State or Utah, for example.
Yes, the early kickoffs would undoubtedly conflict with youth sports, but 7:30 p.m. kickoffs conflict with youth bedtimes.
Larger point: Any adverse impact on ticket sales and overall gate revenue from one home game in a three-year cycle would be offset by the enhanced marketing/branding of teams and players for the collective.
If the Pac-12’s top quarterback were to throw four touchdowns during a 9 a.m. game — if the top tailback were to rush for 200 yards — the highlights would be repeated, all day and night, on the ESPN and Fox studio shows.
Top-25 pollsters, playoff selection committee members and Heisman voters alike would have greater exposure to the next Khalil Tate or Justin Herbert … or, um, Christian McCaffrey.
Four 9 a.m. Pac-12 home games per season.
One 9 a.m. home game for each school every three years.
The sacrifice is minimal.
The benefits are substantial.
“We’re in a era when you can no longer deny that presentation and optics matter as much as results,” said Ted Robinson, a play-by-play announcer for the Pac-12 Networks.
“And the Pac-12 needs to be as creative as possible.”
Lastly, let’s tackle the trickiest matter of all: The competition for eyeballs at 9 a.m.
The ESPN and Fox networks already show games in that window; Big Ten and Big 12 schools in the Central Time Zone have been starting at 11 a.m. for eons.
In some cases (if not all), the early Pac-12 games would require reverse mirror situations, in which the matchup would share ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 airtime with other Power Fives.
But if the schedule is planned in advance, the early Pac-12 game would be slotted opposite Purdue-Minnesota and not a game involving Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State.
If the Pac-12’s broadcast partners aren’t amenable to the tweak — they might view moving a few kickoffs from 10:30 p.m. to noon Eastern as bad business — the conference would have to negotiate the change into its next media rights deal.
Then again, FOX wants premium early games to bolster its new studio show with Reggie Bush and Urban Meyer. It might jump at the opportunity to show Oklahoma-UCLA at 9 a.m. in September, or USC-Utah at 10 a.m. (MT) in November.
Regardless of the details, the plan likely would take several years to implement, and the schools (i.e., the presidents and chancellors) would have to give formal approval to create the 9 a.m. broadcast window.
From here, that seems like an easy call.