Judging from the outsider’s perspective, the Pac-12 seems like the angriest of the Power 5 conferences right now. Or at least the most angst-ridden. The league is angsty about the state of its product on the field after going 1-8 in bowl games and missing the College Football Playoff last year. It’s angsty about its place in the world, literally and metaphorically, isolated from the other four Power 5 leagues. And it’s especially angsty about its TV contract.
Twenty-four of the league’s 80 conference games started at or after 7 p.m. local time in 2017, 30 percent. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but that feels like a higher number than the other conferences (and Pac-12 coaches and fans would likely agree).
There’s one reason for that: TV. In 2011, the Pac-12 announced a joint 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox worth a collective $3 billion. At the time, it felt like a game-changer. In time, we’ve learned that it wasn’t. The Pac-12 is still the only Power 5 conference in the Pacific time zone, and as such, it’s the only conference the networks are going to schedule in the 10:30 p.m. ET time slot.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was asked about the TV deal on Saturday:
“The reason we play almost a third of our games at night is that was a way to unlock significant value from television in our last negations,” Scott said, via The Oregonian. “ESPN and Fox placed a high value on us giving them a little more flexibility and being willing to play more night games.”
Translated from businesspeak to English, here’s what Scott is saying: Look, you like all that money, don’t you? The only way ESPN and Fox were paying us all those billions was if we played at 10:30 Eastern, because they’re certainly not playing SEC games at that time.
The economics here is simple: ESPN and Fox draw higher ratings for live college football games than they do for SportsCenter (or whatever the FS1 equivalent is). The Washington-Utah game drew 1.589 million viewers for ESPN on Sept. 15, while Fresno State-UCLA drew 301,000 for FS1. Both of those numbers are higher than anything else those networks could show at that time. As such, ESPN and Fox can charge higher prices for advertising, and then share some of that money with the conference. If there were no #Pac12AfterDark games there would be no (or significantly less) #Pac12AfterDark money. And everyone likes money, especially when they’ve already spent it it on coaching salaries and new facilities.
And, let’s face it, given the chance to show, say, Alabama-Ole Miss or Washington-Utah at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN is going to pick Alabama-Ole Miss every time. In fact, ESPN did that exact thing on Sept. 15, and Alabama-Ole Miss drew 4.109 million viewers.
The Pac-12 does own its own network, so if the league’s fans and coaches are truly that miserable in their current arrangement, the option to go it alone and pick its kickoff times will become available to the conference starting in 2024. In fact, the Pac-12 stands more to gain than any other conference by placing most or all of its TV inventory on its own network. The Pac-12 wholly owns all of Pac-12 Network, which means it would stand to keep all of the profits in the event its carriage fees skyrocket by putting every USC, Washington, Oregon, etc., football game on its network. But, of course, it would stand to take all of the losses the conference passed on the guaranteed money from ESPN and Fox and the carriage fees didn’t skyrocket.
The guess here is the Pac-12 will take the guaranteed money again.