SEATTLE — Stephen Nute, a frequent season-ticket holder for Washington football the past three decades, enjoyed the days when he could grab the schedule, see the times of games and begin planning his fall weekends.
He liked it best when the games were at 12:30 p.m., and he could envision taking in some football, then maybe enjoying a dinner with friends.
But these days, he’s increasingly left waiting until a week or two before the game to find out when kickoff will come, a wait necessitated by the Pac-12’s contract with its TV networks. The networks want the flexibility to get the best games in spots they think will be the most watched.
And more often than not, when the kickoff time for UW games has been announced, it’s an evening spot. Of Washington’s six home games, four have started at 6 p.m. or later, including Saturday’s game against Utah, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. — a game time that wasn’t announced until Sunday. The Huskies played just two night games during the 2011 regular season.
“It just feels like we are being held captive to the whims of the network and it’s all about the network and TV revenues,” Nute said. “I just prefer day games, I suppose. But I wish I knew when I bought the tickets what times the games are going to be.”
Washington officials have heard similar complaints and say they sympathize. But they say they hope fans understand the benefits from the increasing number of flexible start times and more night games. The benefits are coming, in part, from the Pac-12’s new TV contract, a 12-year deal that went into effect this year.
Those benefits include a significant increase in revenue — an estimated $3 billion distributed evenly to the schools over that 12-year time span — plus added exposure. For the first time, every game is on TV, and a higher percentage are seen nationally. With football revenues paying most of the bills for college athletic departments, schools and conferences are under increasing pressure to maximize the dollars they can get from that sport.
“Our preference is not to play that many,” said UW athletic director Scott Woodward of night games. “But the dilemma for us is that we understand, and I think the vast majority of our fans understand, that our conference has made this deal and it’s a concession that we made (to get) the great, huge benefits that we have being affiliated with the Pac-12. ... It’s one of those things I am sympathetic for. But it’s part of the age we are living in. It’s the new normal.”
And while fans have complained, each of the Pac-12 schools are out of the decision-making process. The schools essentially handed over control of game times to the conference, led by commissioner Larry Scott, when it negotiated its TV deals with ABC/ESPN and FOX, and also instituted its own Pac-12 Networks. Those deals call for specific TV time slots each week and then the ability for the networks to put the games where they want. The networks essentially hold a draft each week to pick the games they desire, the order of selection changing throughout the season.
Pac-12 spokesman Erik Hardenbergh said the conference has heard from many fans who like the ability to see every game on TV (assuming they have a distributor that gets the Pac-12 Networks, which is another issue).
“The additional games are in response to what we heard from fans,” he said. “They wanted to see more of their games, they wanted to see their teams play every week. And frankly it’s also due to interest from our media partners, too. Night games are a big part of these contracts and a big appeal.”
Some game times are set before the season, particularly for early-season games. But Hardenbergh said the contracts allow for start times for all games after the fourth week of the season to fall under what the conference calls “12-day” or “six-day” windows, meaning the networks can wait until 12 or six days before games to pick the contests they want, and where they want them. One exception, Hardenbergh said, is each team’s homecoming game, which schools can ask to be set ahead of time.
ESPN and FOX can use only two six-day windows, meaning most games are picked at least 12 days in advance.
ESPN used one of its six-day windows for this weekend, which meant five of the six games Saturday did not have start times until last Sunday. Three ended up in a 7:30 p.m. time slot, including both Utah at UW and UCLA at Washington State.
Hardenbergh said basketball games on Saturday contributed to the three 7:30 starts but also said the Saturday night games are drawing good ratings.
Woodward says some fans have said they preferred the night games, allowing them to participate in other activities during the day. The night starts are also valued by the Pac-12 Networks. The conference held 35 football games to show on its own network.
“The late night games for football are paying the bills so we can show soccer and volleyball and baseball and other sports on the Pac-12 Networks,” Woodward said.