Going The Rounds: Late-night starts diminish college football experience

In the mid-1960s, after my father received a raise in his job as a buyer at Seattle’s Frederick &Nelson department store, my parents splurged to buy season tickets to University of Washington football games.

Every Saturday for several years when the Huskies were home, they followed a familiar ritual. After lunch at Marie’s Restaurant on Greenwood Avenue, they would take a charter bus to Husky Stadium, witness the early-afternoon game and return home in time for dinner with the rest of the family.

Their seats, on about the 15-yard line, weren’t exceptional but the experience was. My parents enjoyed watching fans streaming across campus to the stadium before viewing the game and the band performances on a crisp autumn afternoon. They also formed at least short-lived friendships with their seatmates on the bus and at the stadium.

Washington’s on-field performance was beginning to wane after three Rose Bowl appearances in a five-year span. My dad’s only frequent complaint, however, was the scarcity of UW road games that were televised.

College football’s television rights at the time were tightly controlled by Walter Byers, the near-dictatorial executive director of the NCAA. Only one game per week was telecast either regionally or nationally (although exceptions were made for such rivalry contests as the Apple Cup).

To prevent high-profile teams such as Notre Dame from being shown every week, strict limitations were imposed on how many TV appearances each school could make over a two-year period. When a particularly big game — Oklahoma-Texas, for example — was aired nationally, regional telecasts were blacked out. To the ire of most Northwesterners, a 1960 Washington-USC game that decided a Rose Bowl berth (the Huskies winning decisively in an uncharacteristic Southern California rainstorm) failed to meet the NCAA criteria and didn’t make it on the air.

Most UW fans at the time thus contented themselves with viewing the previous day’s game on the Sunday afternoon Husky Highlights show. The highlights designation was something of a misnomer, since nearly every play was edited into the 1-hour program.

For a couple of years during the 1960s, the show was hosted by KOMO-TV sports anchor Keith Jackson. While most professional announcers narrated the play-by-play from a script, Jackson called the action as it happened from the stadium. That gave the Husky show a you-are-there quality that most highlights programs lacked. It also proved to be Jackson’s audition for a subsequent Hall of Fame network career.

If they were still alive, I’m not certain how my parents would have viewed the changes in college football scheduling over the past 50 years.

Assuming they would have subscribed to the alphabet soup of cable networks that carry college football, they could have watched virtually every Husky game, home or away. But the greater viewing access has come at a considerable price. Early Saturday afternoon college football games in Washington’s conference have virtually disappeared.

Last Saturday, for example, four of the five Pac-12 Conference games began at 4 p.m. or later — with the California at Washington contest kicking off at 8:06 p.m.

That was an arguably a more spectator-friendly slate than the previous week, when three Pac-12 contests started at 7 or 7:30 p.m.

There’s no mystery about the origins of this scheduling. Seeking to increase the conference’s national exposure (something they were not receiving from the more regionally based ROOT Sports network), newly hired Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott signed 12-year contracts with the ESPN/ABC and Fox Sports networks in 2011 and essentially granted them free rein in the scheduling of conference games.

Since both networks cover other conferences during the afternoon, they’ve reserved evenings for Pac-12 broadcasts. Clearly it makes more sense to start a Stanford-Oregon State game at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time than a Georgia-Florida game at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Nevertheless, hardly anyone aside from Scott and the networks likes the new world of Pac-12 scheduling. Northwest fans believe a disproportionate number of late-season night games are occurring in their region, to the detriment of spectator comfort. It’s one thing to schedule a Husky contest in Seattle for a mid-September evening; quite another to set a 7:30 kickoff for an Arizona State-Washington State game in Pullman on Halloween.

Oregon boosters contend that their team’s reputation with pollsters and Heisman Trophy voters is damaged when Duck games don’t end until 2 a.m. in the Eastern time zone.

Washington athletic Scott Woodward was upset enough about Saturday’s 8 p.m. starting time to vent a bit on a Seattle radio station.

“It’s tough on our fans,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it will addressed and talked about (before) the next television contract.”

Husky fans still on the road at 1 or 2 a.m. Sunday would have been gratified to learn that a remedy may be only 10 years away.

If Scott and his minions would make it a high priority, a quicker fix would be ridiculously easy.

Conference officials could renegotiate the contracts, allowing the networks to still carry Pac-12 night games but under Walter Byers-like restrictions.

No Pac-12 member would be required to host more than two night games per season. After Oct. 15, all evening contests would be restricted to California, Arizona or Utah venues. Since that encompasses 7 of the 12 conference schools, that is hardly an onerous requirement.

Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Executive Director Mike Colbrese is fond of beginning discussion on controversial WIAA policies by noting they represent the will of the membership.

That’s not always the case. When the majority of high school representatives expressed a desire to return to 16-team state basketball tournaments, for example, WIAA officials determined that was the wrong answer and simply ignored the members in that case.

For the most part, however, Colbrese is correct. Athletic officials serve at the pleasure of the people who hire them.

As long as the networks continue to pour cash into Pac-12 athletic departments, school leaders can afford to put an insurrection on hold until 2023.

Many things have changed since the 1960s. Both my parents are gone, as is Frederick &Nelson. Another restaurant operates on the site of Marie’s. Keith Jackson, considered by many to be the greatest of all college football announcers, has retired.

Some of those changes were inevitable. Others were unnecessary. The severe reduction of Saturday afternoon college football games falls into the latter category.

It’s more than a trifle sad that an entire generation of fans believe that a college football game day experience is watching Lee Corso don mascot garb on television.

Rick Anderson is The Daily World sports editor. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or via email at randerson@thedailyworld.com. Follow the Daily World sports happenings on Twitter at @DW_GHSports.


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