Late-night Huskies? Money takes precedence over fans

SEATTLE — If you’re holding the print edition of today’s Herald, you’re not reading about a Washington Huskies’ victory or loss over to California. The game ended far too late to make it into your paper.

But what I can tell you hours before Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff is that that the Pacific-12 Conference is doing just fine financially, thank you very much.

Back in 2011, the soon-to-become Pac-12 reached a deal with ESPN and Fox that would reportedly pay the conference $3 billion over 12 years for TV rights. And when we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a year — tens of millions per school, per year — that kind of money will take precedence over a pesky little thing like the game-day experience of fans. Or at least of those willing to attend a game that won’t end until 11:30 or so.

Right or wrong, money over everything has increasingly become the reality of big-time college athletics in recent years. It’s silly at this point to worry about the purity of “amateur” college athletics and say it shouldn’t be about the money — the genie is way too far out of the bottle on that one.

But 8 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time kickoffs? That’s a whole new level of telling those fans who actually attend the game how little they matter anymore.

Yes, every school wants that ticket revenue, and they especially want those big-money donors to do their part, but if a TV network shelling out billions of dollars says “jump,” you’d better believe the conference will answer, “how late?” TV contracts have become the 21st-century arms race in college sports. If the Southeastern Conference gets a huge deal with ESPN, then the Big Ten, Pac-12 and everyone else know they need to get theirs if they’re going to compete financially and on the field.

“I understand the situation with the Pac-12 having these cable contracts, but it puts a real inconvenience on the people who want to go the games,” said Harry Santoro, a long-time season ticket holder from Edmonds. “Eight o’clock? Come on.”

Santoro has for more than a decade taken his mother, Ruth, to games with the tickets he inherited from his uncle, noted Seattle restaurateur Vito Santoro, who passed away in 2000. Ruth, who is in her late 70s — she won’t let her son disclose her exact age — almost never misses a game. Saturday night, however, was an exception.

“She’s pretty much gone to every game, but with how late this one is and with how the weather is getting …” Santoro says before trailing off and accepting reality. “You can’t really fault the university, I understand what they’re doing, but it just kind of puts a hindrance on long-time season ticket holders.”

As Santoro notes, the late kickoff by itself would be bad enough, but the inconvenience is compounded by the fact that networks often don’t select start times until two weeks — and in rare cases even a week — before the game.

“That’s a big part of it,” he said. “Not knowing, then finding out it’s at 8 o’clock, it’s not good.”

The University of Washington declined to comment through a spokesman, noting the school isn’t in charge of scheduling. The Pac-12 responded to interview requests by issuing a statement through a spokesperson.

“The current football television agreements reflect the desire of our members to significantly increase national exposure for Pac-12 teams and to grow revenue for our universities. Accomplishing these two important goals requires some compromise in start times on Saturday, including night games.”

Which is a really nice way of saying, “to be competitive in big-time college sports, we needed more money, and more money means letting these networks show games pretty much whenever they deem best for their ratings.”

Is Fox Sports 1 going to get killer ratings nationally for a game that ends well into Sunday morning on the east coast? Of course not. But a lot more folks will tune in for a game between Washington and Cal, especially in those markets, than any other non-live programming the network could offer.

During halftime of the Oregon-Cal game last month at Autzen Stadium, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott addressed this issue with reporters.

“This is a real balancing act,” he said then. “In order to get the TV deals we got with ESPN and Fox, they, at least ESPN, really likes the evening windows. … Nationally, our games oftentimes get a higher rating in this time slot because you’re one of only a few games going on.

“You can’t satisfy everyone completely all the time. That’s why it’s a balancing act. … We’ve got to be sensitive to it; we can’t have too many night games.”

And to be fair, this will be the Huskies second home night game — their opener kicked off at 7 p.m. UW also has had two mid-day games and one 4 p.m. kickoff, so this isn’t an every-week occurrence. Even so, this game, the latest yet on Washington’s schedule, is a reminder that now, more than ever, TV money, not fans, is what’s driving college sports.

Scott calls it a balancing act, but the scales are awfully tilted by all those dollar bills.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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