Here’s a potentially spicy take: the Pac-12’s late night kickoffs actually might end up being a good thing for the beleaguered conference’s media rights.
Per Jon Wilner of the Mercury News, that inventory of football games starting at 10 PM on the east coast is quite valuable to ESPN since the network doesn’t have a deal with the Mountain West and the Big 12’s tendrils only reach as far as one team in either the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones (BYU).
“Nobody else can fill those time zones,” said Ed Desser, the president of Desser Sports Media and former executive vice president for strategic planning/business development at the NBA.
ESPN’s college football programming template features five windows: College GameDay at 8 a.m. (Eastern), followed by kickoffs at 12 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 8 p.m. (primetime on ABC) and late night.
While the late games (10 or 10:30 p.m.) lose audience when fans in the eastern half of the country go to bed, they still carry significant value for ESPN because of their unopposed nature — no other Power Five games are being played — and the 12-hour cross-promotional opportunities baked into earlier programming on ESPN.
Without the Pac-12 filling that timeslot, ESPN would likely just end up going with SportsCenter or another wrap-up show several hours earlier than usual, which would bring in far fewer viewers than another live game.
“The beauty of the Pac-12 is you can program that late (Saturday) window for 13 consecutive weeks,’’ said John Kosner, a sports media consultant, president of Kosner Media and former executive vice president/digital media at ESPN.
“It takes a conference to do that, because it’s hard for individual schools to play more than a handful of those games each season.
“Let’s say you get practically a 1.0 rating and 1.5 million homes on average per (night) game. That’s considerable audience delivery for 3.5 hours every Saturday. That’s very hard to replace.
We’re really coming full circle with the kickoff times, huh?
Back in 2017, then Washington coach Chris Petersen complained about the late kickoffs, which resulted in Kirk Herbstreit firing back on College GameDay. A year later, then Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott defended the later kickoffs, saying they were “a way to unlock significant value from television in our last negotiations,” which may still be true today. A year after *that*, Wilner reported that the conference tried to renegotiate its TV deals with ESPN and Fox to play fewer games in that late window, but the financial ramifications were too significant.
And now, we’re back in the same position – the Pac-12’s media rights deals are coming to an end, it’s not in a great place, and those late night games might be what pushes the Pac-12 to a better media rights agreement. I understand the misgivings about playing so many games in that window, but when that’s such a significant selling point to networks, the conference might have to just take the hit.