Pac-12’s morning starts have some fans, some critics

Before the start of the abbreviated Pac-12 season, there was a lot of talk about early morning starts, some positive, some negative.

Turns out, just one game through the conference’s first three weeks has been scheduled for a morning start — USC’s come-from-behind 28-27 win over Arizona State last weekend. It kicked off at 9 a.m. Pacific.

The league’s earliest start this weekend, and next, is 12:30 p.m. local time. As it stands, those Pac-12 After Dark games are more prevalent, with three set to start at 7:30 p.m. or later this weekend.

The prospect of early start times was raised last year to take advantage of the 12 p.m. Eastern TV window, which would increase the league’s exposure. There have long been concerns that night games, with a more limited national audience, have hurt the Pac-12’s teams and players when it comes to rankings and postseason awards.

In other words, East Coast Bias.

Because there are no fans in the stands so far this season to grouse about early morning wake-up calls, it gave the league an opportunity to experiment with start times. The season’s November start amid the pandemic also meant there were fewer national TV windows available.

USC coach Clay Helton embraced the early start and the widespread audience it afforded.

“That’s what you want. You want to be able to play on the biggest stage with the brightest lights,” he said. “To be able to have that national scene be able to see us right off the bat, you’ve got to take that. That’s an advantage for you.”

The game had 2.3 million viewers on Fox, which was down for the timeslot, but it also took place soon after networks called the presidential race, sending many potential viewers to the cable news channels. It still beat the ABC broadcast of the game between Stanford and Oregon that started at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and drew 1.7 million viewers.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was among the Pac-12 coaches who embraced the early starts.

“As willing as we could possibly be. So whatever the maximum willingness level is, that’s where we’re at,” Whittingham said about the prospect of morning games. “It doesn’t bother us a bit. Our opinion has always been the sooner we get on the field, the better. It provides no advantage for either team, they’re both kicking off at the same time.”

Washington’s first-year coach Jimmy Lake agreed.

“I used to live on the East Coast, and it is hard to watch West Coast games because the times are just so different. We’re fortunate on the West Coast, we get to watch every single game at a decent time and a decent hour,” he said. “And so I don’t mind the 9 o’clock games at all, I think they’ll be great. They’ll be great for the Pac-12, they’ll be great for the East Coast, the media and fans and the other football coaches across the country to be able to watch what an exciting, and what a talented conference the Pac-12 is.”

But some of the Pac-12’s coach’s questioned the impact morning games might have on the players.

Cardinal coach David Shaw said he had gotten to know William Dement, a prominent sleep researcher at Stanford who passed away in June, and understands college students need proper sleep for maximum performance.

“College kids don’t go to bed at 9 o’clock at night. They’re just not built that way. They need their sleep, and sleep enhances performance,” Shaw said. “A 9 a.m. kickoff is not getting up at 8 o’clock and rolling into the stadium to go. A 9 a.m. kickoff is a 6 a.m., 6:30 a.m. wakeup call. We’ve got to get the pregame meal in, we’ve got to get them moving around, we’ve got to get them taped an activated to warm up an hour before the game. So, I’m not a fan”

Nick Rolovich, the new coach at Washington State, echoed that sentiment.

“You’re talking about having a pregame meal at 5 a.m.,” he said. “I get it where it can help for TV but as far as the kids I’m not sure that’s the best thing we want to do.”

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