“I’ve had several people, at least three people today, text me and say, ‘Is it really 9:30? I just looked at the schedule,’” said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. “I had to say, ‘Yeah, it’s really 9:30.’ It’s brutal.”
The tip time, though, might be a tipping point.
Thompson met with the conference’s presidents and athletic directors earlier in the week, and he said the clear sentiment was “to reassess” the increasing control of television in the marquee sports of football and men’s basketball. A semifinal at 9:30 p.m. followed by a 3 p.m. final the next day – a 15-hour turnaround for athletes who will be playing their third or fourth game in as many days – was the decision of CBS, which is the Mountain West’s primary rights holder.
Football games also have been kicking off later and later in recent years due at TV’s behest, finishing close to midnight and driving down ticket sales. Boise State, which has a separate ESPN deal, hasn’t played a home game during the day since the 2013 season opener (and season tickets, not surprisingly, have dropped for four straight years).
It works like this: The TV networks give conferences a check, then tell them when to play.
“We spent about seven hours with the presidents and ADs talking about our TV package,” Thompson said. “We’re playing at 8:15 or 8:30 consistently in football, we’ve even had some 9 o’clock tips in basketball, we had three Sunday afternoon (basketball) games in San Diego this year. What are we doing? What’s the return?
“They hear it from fans. They go to the games themselves. Presidents are saying, ‘Wait a minute. I have a 6 a.m. breakfast in the morning, and we have an 8:30 p.m. kick?’ The question becomes: Is it worth $1 million per school to have all these disenfranchised fans?”
That’s about what each Mountain West member gets annually from a TV contract split between CBS and ESPN. It’s not the only league where TV dictates dates and times, but the tolerance for inconvenience is different when you’re getting $20 million per year per school, as power conferences are.
The Mountain West is stuck with its current TV deal through the 2019-2020 academic year, and until then Thompson admits they’re at the mercy of the networks and their late starts to fill vacant time slots. But negotiations for a new deal will begin in about 18 months, and Thompson hinted they might go in a different direction.
As drastically different direction.
“I have used the word strongly: the alternative,” Thompson said.
He might cut the cord.
The Mountain West already has numerous football and men’s basketball games on Internet-only feeds like ESPN3, CampusInsiders.com and Themwc.com. The idea, if the networks refuse to rescind control over start times, would be to go all digital, which would significantly reduce the rights fees but also eliminate the 8:15 p.m. Thursday night football game or the 9:30 p.m. semifinal in the conference tournament.
There are no time slots on the Internet. You just play whenever you want to. And some of that lost money in rights fees, you’d think, would be recouped by increased ticket sales.
The decision: Are you more concerned about the 40,000 in the stadium who buy tickets, or the 250,000 watching on TV for free?
“People tell you, ‘You’ve got to be on TV, you’ve got to be on TV,’” Thompson said. “I get it, I understand, there are still people out there saying that’s not TV, it’s on the computer. But people are watching the computer now.
“To be on TV and collect a check, you’re going to play at 8:30 or 9 o’clock on those odd nights. Where’s the sweet spot? Where’s the balance? It’s a challenge, and it’s not comfortable.”
[IMAGE: Lance Iversen / USA Today Sports]