Monday, the Pac-12 announced that the Cal-Washington State game Oct. 13 will be at 7:30 p.m. in Pullman. It got me to thinking again about the possible price of Pac-12 TV exposure and the lucrative new contracts the league has spawned with ESPN, Fox and the Pac-12 Networks.
Count me among those who feel the ability to see every game on TV is a big bonus for fans (assuming your carrier isn’t DirecTV, which still hasn’t reached agreement with the Pac-12). The money is a huge boon to the 12 schools, no matter their financial state.
Still, we’re beginning to see some of the residual effects on fans, and I wonder whether we’re moving toward a time — maybe we’re already there — when the games are less about the people in the seats than the folks with a remote in their hands.
Last week at CenturyLink field, Washington drew 55,941 to its game with eighth-ranked Stanford. Got to admit, I was a little surprised it wasn’t a bigger crowd.
But then, you’ve got mitigating factors: The Huskies were still pretty much an unknown commodity. It was a 6 p.m. start, and that works a hardship on some people, getting to the stadium, parking and being there on time. And the fact it’s in a stadium away from campus — even if it is only a few miles away — makes it unappealing to some. I had some friends tell me they went to the San Diego State game and weren’t planning to go back, saying it wasn’t at all like the college atmosphere they enjoy at the UW.
And then there’s the TV angle. Given any of the above factors, it becomes easy just to say: Let’s stay home and watch it on TV. More than one knowledgable observer has looked at the NFL in recent years, at the ticket prices, the seat-license fee that might be required for the tickets, just the overall investment in going to a game — and decided that with the quantum advances in TV, the experience is better at home. And a lot cheaper.
I think some of that is at work in the Pac-12 now. The crowd at CenturyLink for the WSU-Oregon game was just under 61,000. Nothing smallish about that; it was a good showing by WSU fans in support of a struggling team, after some predictions that the lemon-and-green segment would number maybe 25,000. Instead, I’d put it at maybe 10,000, perhaps even less.
My theory is — and it’s just a theory, no real evidence — that WSU fans turned out because, well, it’s their game. For many alums and fans on the west side of the state, it’s the only time all season they’ll see their team play. It’s a one-time deal. So they went.
Why weren’t there more Oregon fans? Maybe for some of the same reasons that the Huskies didn’t fill CenturyLink two nights before. If you were a Duck fan in Eugene or Portland, unless you were targeting a weekend in Seattle built around the game — I’m sure some did — I could see that person looking at the 7:30 p.m. game time, knowing it meant at least a night in a hotel, perhaps being unfamiliar with the stadium and environs and saying, Hey, let’s have some people over and watch it on TV.
Certainly, there are fans who go to great lengths to see their team play and they’ll indulge hassles to make it happen. Seems to me, though, that there are many who are creatures of habit, and given the inconveniences of a different venue, plus the lure of TV, they’ll stay home.
Which brings us back to that Cal-WSU game time. Late starts are more of a bugaboo for WSU fans than anybody, because they can dictate an entire weekend. Motel space is so hard to come by in Pullman-Moscow, and the assignment of a late start time can mean somebody who had hoped/planned to spend Friday night there, see the game and then make it out of town, even back to the west side, now has to scrub that idea. It’s a lot easier simply to surrender and watch on TV than to scrounge motel accommodations that aren’t available.
And TV makes it easier to do that.
This week, the same phenomenon would apply for UW fans who might be migrating down I-5 for the Oregon game. It’s Saturday night, which means you’ve got to be pretty dedicated and intrepid to think about attending and going home after the game if you’re coming from the Seattle area.
For the Ducks, meanwhile, it’s the fifth night game of the year, even as Oregon AD Rob Mullens wrote a letter to ticket-holders, explaining that the Ducks would prefer to play day games, and according to the Eugene Register-Guard, “lobbying vigorously” not to have been tabbed for a night game this week.
“I feel for the fans,” UO coach Chip Kelly told reporters this week. “We get out of here and it’s midnight, and I’m driving four miles home. These people are driving really long distances home.”
Oregon is ranked No. 2, so it isn’t feeling any drain on its live gate (although the Ducks scrambled to keep alive a long streak of sellouts earlier this year). Washington, in a remodeled stadium next year, should be protected against attrition. But project some competitive dropoff for those programs or others, and you wonder whether TV presence might have a dramatic effect.
Of course, we’ll get what could be the ultimate read on TV-related inconvenience next month, when they play the Apple Cup in Pullman Friday, Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving. Pack your turkey sandwiches along with your tire chains.