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Pac-12 buys into late-night games, for better or worse

When you sell your soul to the devil, the age of innocence is over.

The Pac-12's $4.3-billion contract with ESPN and Fox, along with its commitment to the fledgling Pac-12 Networks, is expected to reap an average of $21 million per school annually over the next decade.

In exchange, when the networks tell the schools to jump, they are expected to ask, "How high?"

Case in point is the proliferation of night games foisted upon the fans who attend games and coaches and athletes who perform in them.

Oregon State will play the second of three successive 7:30 p.m. games Saturday at California, though only one of the games is at home. Oregon gets its second straight 7:30 p.m. home start Saturday vs. Washington State. The Cougars will be playing their sixth night game in eight outings this season, including a 7 p.m. EDT start in their opener at Auburn.

What in the name of Roone Arledge is going on here?

The Pac-12 TV contracts call for every game involving a conference team to be televised. The schedule for the first three weeks is pretty much set on June 1 before each season. After that, networks have what is essentially a draft, sharing in No. 1 picks through the campaign, with a "12-day-out" selection order for the telecasts.

"ESPN and Fox have the lion's share of first picks," says Kevin Weiberg, the Pac-12's deputy commissioner/chief operating officer. "But the Pac-12 Networks do have some through the season, too. It moves around."

This season, the arrangement has the league schools playing a collective total of eight Thursday or Friday night games, with start times ranging from 6 to 7:30 p.m. That's bad enough.

On Saturdays, there are three "windows." The early-afternoon window has starts at either 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. The mid-afternoon window is normally a 3 p.m.-to-4 p.m. start. The night window can start as early as 6 p.m. or as late as 8 p.m. The other possibility is, if ABC is doing a national broadcast, a starting time of 5 p.m.

Last Saturday, there were three games starting at 7 or 7:30 p.m. -- Oregon State vs. Washington State, Colorado vs. Arizona State and California vs. UCLA.

"That's happening because ESPN is doing night games fairly routinely," Weiberg explains. "When we have a national broadcast game in the mid-afternoon window, there is an exclusivity provision that allows that game to stand alone in that window for Fox or ABC. When that happens, it puts the Pac-12 Networks in position that if they have one or more games, they need to go into the night window.

"We have four or five weeks this season where there is no national broadcast game, but the majority of the weeks there is. We wind up typically with an ESPN game or two and one on FoxSports1."

The networks love the games aired on prime time. And believe it or not, they like a game that begins at 10 or 10:30 p.m. for their east-coast markets.

"That's been big value for ESPN in particular," Weiberg says. Network officials "feel it allows them to have college football programming throughout the entire day, including the late-night east-coast time frame. Based on the viewership numbers, the games have been well-received."

The Pac-12 won't divulge ratings numbers, but Weiberg indicate the late games have been successful.

"Two of ESPN's games -- Wisconsin-Arizona State and Washington-Stanford -- were the highest-rated games on the network that day," he says. "The night window has held up well."

Figuring games last at least 3 1/2 hours and sometimes four hours, it's hard for me to believe many east-coast denizens are staying up to watch Pac-12 games that start no earlier than 10 p.m. and end as late as 3 a.m. Ex-OSU quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Matt Moore -- Anderson in Charlotte, Moore in Miami -- told me they stayed up to watch the start of last Saturday's OSU-WSU game, only to fall asleep before halftime.

Even if eastern fans are dipping well past the midnight oil to watch to the finish, the late starts are a hardship on those folks at home who pungle up money to buy tickets and attend games. The majority of Oregon and Oregon State fans are driving from the Portland area. A 7:30 p.m. start in Eugene, for instance, means an 11 p.m. finish. Given the half-hour crawl to I-5 and then a two-hour drive home, that means fans are arriving at their doorsteps around 1:30 a.m.

In a Q&A session with Bob De Carolis last week, Oregon State's athletic director expressed concern about the effect late starts have on the fan base. The worry is that more and more supporters will choose not to buy tickets and settle for watching the games at home. That's a problem. While TV contracts are the straw that seems to stir the drink these days, fans in the seats at the stadiums throughout the conference are the lifeblood of the programs. They're getting kicked to the curb.

OSU coach Mike Riley is unhappy with the effect on the players, too, particularly for road contests.

"I understand getting all our games on (TV) and trying to find windows," he says. "I get that. But they have to consider us having two weeks in a row with our kids traveling and getting home at 3 or 4 in the morning. They have to think about that a little more. That has to enter into the equation. We should never have two in a row. It's hard on these kids. it's hard on all of us. It's a rough start to the week. And fans traveling home that late at night, it's scary."

So is there any consideration given to fans and student-athletes getting home at a late hour?

"Those are always concerns," Weiberg says. "There is a travel burden. We're trying to strike the right balance on those things. I don't think any school had more than three of its home games at night this season. The Arizona schools (which opt for night games because of the heat) may be an exception. We're trying to be mindful of those things. Whenever we have an athletic directors' meeting, those issues are discussed.

"We try to work cooperatively to make sure there is some balance. You can't be perfect in that regard necessarily, but we do have some ability to make sure nobody has too many games at night."

The almighty dollar always speaks loudest, of course.

Weiberg is a former commissioner of the Big 12 and deputy commissioner of the Big Ten.

"We had night games in the Big 12, primarily from 6 to 7:30 p.m. for the Central time window," he says. "In the Big Ten, not so much. They have a long history of trying to avoid night games, though they've had a few more with the advent of the Big Ten Networks. But it's become a national trend in many respects."

I'll admit my opinion is influenced by covering all Oregon State games, home and away. In the wee hours Sunday morning, as The Oregonian's Connor Letourneau and I negotiated U.S. Route 195 between Pullman and our Spokane hotel through dense fog that had the rental car plugging along at 40 miles per hour, I found myself cursing the Pac-12 TV contract and the fertile minds behind it.

In most of the Pac-12 markets, the majority of fan base is more than an hour away. Certainly fans who have to make those late-hour drives share my distaste.

It's a travesty, really. There's no reason to start a game after 6 p.m. Pacific time. If two or three games have to be shown in the same window, so be it.

Big money is critical to Pac-12 athletic programs today more than ever, so the TV networks have the biggest voice. Attendance figures -- and the health and welfare of the players -- be damned, I guess.

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