Late-night kickoffs: Burden or boon?
Before Colorado played a single down of football this season, head coach Mike MacIntyre assessed what the NCAA, Pac-12 and television networks were asking from the Buffaloes in scheduling.
His reaction? “That’s ludicrous.”
Uh, oh. Here we go again. As the college football season reached its midway point, much of the national conversation shifted to West Coast gossip after Washington coach Chris Petersen publicly lamented the abundance of late-night kickoffs, and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit fired back, “You should be thanking ESPN” for the exposure. So, what’s MacIntyre’s beef ?
College football fans in Colorado have grown accustomed to Pac-12 and Mountain West games sometimes lasting into the next morning in the Mountain Time Zone. Colorado State kicks off at 8:15 p.m. Saturday against Nevada. CU doesn’t start until 8:45 p.m. next week at Washington State and has already hosted Petersen’s Huskies with an 8 p.m. kick on Fox Sports 1. Combined between both conferences, 18 of their games have been featured on either ESPN or ESPN2 this fall — and only three of those kicked off before 6 p.m.
Common sense spells out the negatives: Less viewership on the East Coast, late travel home, fewer families with children in attendance, and the list goes on. But MacIntyre knows better than most how tenuous college football scheduling has become.
The NCAA approved a new measure for the 2017-18 academic year that mandates student-athletes receive one full day off from
team activities each week, but in accordance with certain travel restrictions. Per NCAA rules, if CU arrived back on campus after 5 a.m. Sunday following a road game, it could not count that day toward its total — forcing the Buffaloes to take off needed practice time later in the week.
“If we got back in at 6:15 in the morning from our trip in Southern California … you’re saying that we can go sleep for five or six hours and then come back and have to practice football?” MacIntyre said. “To me, that’s not for the wellness of the student-athlete.”
CU brought its concerns to the NCAA through the Pac-12, MacIntyre said, and it approved a waiver that allowed the Buffaloes to keep Sunday as an off period even when arriving home that same morning.
“You play a hard game and get off the field at (midnight) your time, fly all the way back, then you bus. It’s really a hard travel,” MacIntyre said. “We’ve petitioned that, the NCAA granted it because they understand our situation. It is tough but that’s just part of it. Teams that come here don’t have it as bad because they lose an hour coming back. It’s a little bit different for them.”
Said senior CU linebacker Derek McCartney: “You don’t like having to get home at 6 in the morning, but in terms of playing the game, it doesn’t have a big impact.”
MacIntyre understands that his concerns fall mostly upon deaf ears considering the financial ramifications of allowing television networks the rights to control kickoff times. In 2011, the Pac-12 signed a 12-year, $3 billion television contract with ESPN and Fox. In 2013, the Mountain West signed a seven-year deal with ESPN worth about $116 million.
With an evolving college football landscape, though, might changes within the Pac-12 and Mountain West further alleviate the burden of late kickoffs?
“I try to look at our West Coast advantages,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said.
Among Petersen’s problems with late kickoffs is a lack of national exposure as half the country is off to bed while his team makes its case to the College Football Playoff committee. But according to television ratings compiled by SportsMediaWatch.com, the most watched Pac-12 game of the season (4.953 million viewers) was for Texas at USC on Sept. 16, and it didn’t end until 10:41 p.m. MDT — well after midnight out east.
“While there is less East Coast viewership, we dominate (the time slot),” Scott said. “We’ve got the most market share. While somewhat counter-intuitive, the research actually shows some of our best-rated games are 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. kickoff times. … oftentimes more eyeballs than if we’ve got a game kicking off at 12:30 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. up against 15 other games on all the myriad of media channels that exist. So it’s a balancing act, but we’ve clearly unlocked value by agreeing to migrate more games to the evening.”
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson echoed that sentiment, considering his league spans the Mountain, Pacific and Hawaii Time Zones and faces similar scheduling concerns. The Mountain West has also shown flexibility in experimenting with live streams on nontraditional platforms that have given it more control over kickoff times. The conference is broadcasting six games through Facebook’s partnership with the sports network “Stadium.”
“Do emerging media platforms represent the way forward for our conference, where we take full control of our kickoff times but trust that fans will be able to find our games on new and different platforms?” Thompson said. “Along those lines, we’re currently vetting a number of alternative methods for content distribution.”
The idea of late kickoffs appeared a non-issue to CSU coach Mike Bobo. He believes the exposure of ESPN2 on Saturday outweighs any negatives, even if potential recruits on the East Coast are up past midnight watching the Rams in Fort Collins.
“Those kids don’t go to sleep,” Bobo joked.
But there is little solace for the traditional fan who views college football as best viewed from the stands with loved ones. Former CSU receiver George Hill (2003-07) is a season-ticket holder who lives in Severance. Hill and his wife have three children, ages 12, 3 and 1, and if it weren’t for babysitting help from the in-laws, they wouldn’t make it to the game.
“It really puts a halt on things,” Hill said. “Being a season-ticket holder as well, how do I plan around an 8:30 game with a 1-year-old? … Being a former player, you always want your oldest to witness the experience you had. But it’s way better when it’s a 1:30 game.”
The dark of night covers War Memorial Stadium during the second half of Oregon’s 49-13 win at Wyoming on Sept. 16. The game started at 5 p.m. MDT.