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BILL DWYRE

Late night with USC, UCLA is drawback of television deal

Pac-12 Conference is getting a lot of money ($2.7 billion) from Fox and ESPN, but that leaves it at the mercy of program directors. As a result you have the Trojans and Bruins playing at 7 p.m.

November 23, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • USC Athletic Director Pat Haden isn't a big fan of late football games.
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden isn't a big fan of late football games. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Now that the Pac-12 Conference has made its long-term deal with the devil, also known as television, expect more indignities ahead for the ticket-buying spectator.

Case in point: The 7 p.m. Saturday start for the USC-UCLA football game.

If you think for one moment that the athletic directors at the schools actually have a say in how their fans are accommodated for something like the marquee sports event of the year for each school, think again.

Pat Haden, USC's athletic director: "I would like to play every game at 12:30 p.m."

Dan Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director: "If somebody gave me a wish list, I'd start every game at 12:30 or 1 p.m."

Good luck with that, Pat and Dan.

The game Saturday at the Coliseum starts at dinner time because television said so. It is the puppeteer. It paid to be so. Start-time decisions are based mostly on potential ratings. End of discussion. USC and UCLA run educational institutions. Television, in this case Fox, runs a business. Universities have many agendas. Television has one. Profits.

Haden: "This is a choice you make when you take the money. It's the age we live in."

Guerrero: "This is our brave new world. It is standard operating procedure, and I don't see it changing."

This is only worth discussing because we seldom do anymore. We just take it. A 7 p.m. game? Yawn.

We are becoming a country of turtles — heads tucked in, beneath the radar, shrugging while people and things perceived to be bigger and more powerful dictate our lives and our comfort zones.

The game time Saturday is just a tiny slice of this.

Some may like the 7 p.m. start. This is not the first time in recent years. We can probably blame that on Rick Neuheisel and UCLA, which has presented less-than-compelling competition for USC for a while and a ready-made excuse (decreased ratings) for the TV schedulers.

But a majority of fans in Southern California grew up with a USC-UCLA legacy that included a game in sunshine, certainly daylight, and a festive pregame atmosphere. It's less festive when the November temperatures dip with the sun. USC-UCLA is special, anticipated for 12 months and held sacrosanct by all those who attended either school or merely adopted one or the other as a favorite.

Now, television treats it as just another game, something to be tossed on a schedule board with dozens of others and subjected to the quirks of a profit-centric agenda.

The game will be on Fox Sports' Prime Ticket. Just for perspective, at 12:30 p.m. on Prime Ticket, you can watch Duke at North Carolina. Fox Sports also has a second regional outlet, FS West. On FSW at 12:30, Southern California viewers can watch Missouri versus Kansas, followed at 4 p.m. by Texas Tech and Baylor.

Several calls were made to Fox Sports officials to explain the whys of this. None was returned.

Haden and Guerrero said they thought the 7 p.m. time slot gave Fox opportunities to show the game in more of the country. Perhaps, but much of the rest of the country will be asleep about the time the fans at the Coliseum get out the blankets and hot coffee.

Think if you are USC and trying to get as much Heisman Trophy exposure as possible for Matt Barkley. Because of NCAA penalties, the UCLA game is his last chance to shine. In the East, nearing midnight by halftime, they'll just put that idea to rest.

USC and UCLA fans look at this annual game as a treasured moment. Television looks at it as programming. Do you think they hold a basketball tournament called the 76 Classic this Thanksgiving weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center to provide a chance for the local fans of Boston College and St. Louis U. to see their games? Or, might that be programming for ESPN?

Do you think those Tuesday night — yes, Tuesday night — football games you saw between the likes of Bowling Green and Ohio University were scheduled for the benefit of the schools and their fans? Or merely for television programming?

How long before our games are played before rows of mannequins, strategically placed as a backdrop for camera shots?

Starting next year and over the ensuing 11, the Pac-12 will receive, in a joint deal with Fox and ESPN, a total of $2.7 billion in fees for the rights to televise various athletic products bred and nurtured by conference. That's about $225 million a year or $20 million per school, probably twice as much as schools in the old Pac-10 received.

Now you know why Colorado and Utah tripped over themselves to get onboard. Last year, Colorado took in an estimated $8 million in TV revenue and Utah $2 million.

New Commissioner Larry Scott did what he was hired for. He generated a huge jump in revenue. Because of that new TV contract, lots of tennis players and cross-country runners will be able to go to school and compete.

That's the plus side, and it is a big one. That's why Haden and Guerrero and their Pac-12 counterparts have little choice but to shrug and watch the jewels of their athletic production compete well past bedtime.

The Pac-12 asked television to "Show Me the Money." It did and now we live with several downsides of that, such as the game time Saturday.

Guerrero, who chooses his words carefully, says, "This is not always in the best interest of all parties."

Haden, who tends to be a bit looser, says, "I've got a cot in my suite at the Coliseum. Maybe somebody will want to come up at halftime and take a nap."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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