Early to bed and early to rise?
Not if you’re planning to follow Southeastern Conference football for the foreseeable future.
While SEC member institutions will benefit financially from the new 15-year television deals signed with CBS and ESPN, the fan bases of the 12 universities must adjust to more night games than ever before. ESPN now has rights to every SEC home football game not selected by CBS, and ESPN’s highest ratings always have been at night.
TUNING IN TO THE SEC
Where Chattanooga football fans can find SEC games this season:
Network Channel Kickoff
SEC Regional 11 12:21
CBS 13 3:30
CSS 27 7
ESPN 28 7 or 7:45
ESPN2 29 7 or 7:45
Fox Sports 33 7
ESPNU 744* 7
*ESPNU requires the purchase of Comcast’s digital classic tier or its sports entertainment packet.
“I think you’ll find that there will be, just by sheer numbers because every game is going to be shown, a little bit more prime time,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president of college programming. “The SEC has long been the anchor for us on ESPN and ESPN2, and ESPNU’s games will be at night as well. What’s at the root of this is that the CBS window at 3:30 is completely exclusive, so whenever they go at 3:30, that’s the only game there.
“By default, all the games either have to be early or late, and early is typically reserved for the former Jefferson-Pilot, which is now the ESPN Regional SEC Network syndicated game, so the rest of the games will be at night.”
Last season, 54.2 percent of games involving SEC teams (52 of 96) had morning or afternoon kickoffs. This season, only 39.6 percent (38 of 96) are projected as daytime starts.
No SEC school will be affected more by the extra later kickoffs than Georgia, which has played only two nontelevised home games at night in the last 50 years. The Bulldogs prefer a limited night schedule at Sanford Stadium, having never played more than two televised evening games in any season.
“We understand at Georgia that this was going to be a possibility in regards to the new television contract, because there are only so many daytime slots being televised,” Bulldogs athletic director Damon Evans said. “This will definitely be very different for us and something we will have to adjust and adapt to. We like the day games, and there may be some opportunities where we can request a noon slot if there is one available, but when you sign a contract of this magnitude, there are some things that come into play.”
ESPN will pay the league $2.25 billion over the next 15 years, about $150 million a year, while CBS will shell out more than $800 million during the same time frame. Those deals will give the SEC about $205 million annually in media rights through the 2025 fiscal year.
The league’s previous television contracts netted about $70 million annually.
Tim Miller and Bob Moss were ahead of the curve.
The two former Chattanooga chapter presidents of the Alabama Alumni & Friends Association purchased apartments several years ago within 100 yards of Bryant-Denny Stadium. They turn Crimson Tide games into weekend trips and aren’t affected by kickoff times, but they realize thousands of Bama backers may be stressed by more late starts.
“You can’t drive home or you’re dead, and can you imagine how people are that drink?” Miller said. “That’s a big deal for a lot of folks. They tailgate before the games and afterwards they will have a beer or two, but you can’t do that anymore.
“What do you do if you’ve got little kids?”
Evans admits night games present more issues at Georgia because of the longer period of time people are on campus “doing whatever they do on those particular game days.” The number of incidents at night games, he added, are noticeably higher than at 1 p.m. games.
Travel plans expect to change, as SEC fans will be faced with more “wee hours” on the highways should they choose to drive home immediately after games.
“Daytime football has been a big tradition at Georgia, and part of it is that we’re not a big city with a lot of hotels,” Bulldogs associate AD Claude Felton said. “In our state, and I think Tennessee is like this to some degree, you can be almost six hours away from Athens and still be in Georgia. When you talk about fans who are driving to the game and home in the same day, it will be pretty hard on those people if you’re playing a 7 or 7:45 game.”
Said Evans: “We are looking at more night games on the road, too, and that will have a significant impact as far as being back later than you normally would. A lot of our trips to Vanderbilt and Kentucky have been for noon games, and a lot of those have an opportunity to be night games now.”
Of the first 28 games this season involving SEC teams, 18 have been announced with a kickoff time of 7 p.m. or later. That is almost identical to last year’s early schedule, as most league schools prefer to play September night games to beat the heat, but the difference later in the season will be drastic.
From the last weekend of September through Thanksgiving weekend last year, daytime games were 67.9 percent of the SEC schedule. The projection of afternoon games for that same span this season is only 41.1 percent.
“That will be the bigger change than has been the case in the past,” Magnus said.
SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack led the league’s efforts in landing these mammoth television pacts and said the increase of night games was discussed up front. Womack added that he will have discussions with the schools throughout this first year of the agreement and believes there will be flexibility.
“What we would look at is ways to accommodate requests from institutions that may prefer to play in the early window as opposed to the evening window,” he said. “If it’s requested, then it’s something we will see if it can be accommodated.”
Every league member gets to host one pay-per-view game, and the starting time of that game is up to the school. ESPN will have a couple of occasions each year to incur on CBS’s window by half an hour or an hour, so the cable network could start a couple of games at 6 instead of 7 or 7:30.
ESPNU even has a pair of noon kickoffs in September involving Kentucky, but Magnus said that is more the result of having so many games those two weekends.
“I think there will be special circumstances on occasion if it’s important to the schools,” Magnus said. “We’re not looking to say, ‘It’s our way or the highway on scheduling.’ If there are special circumstances that we can accommodate, then we’d be happy to do that.”
When Evans was a Georgia receiver from 1989 to ’92, he played in one night game at Sanford Stadium. In 1991, the Bulldogs defeated Clemson, 27-12, on ESPN in an atmosphere he vividly recalls as memorable and electric.
That was Georgia’s first night game at home since a Labor Day loss to Alabama in 1985, but such six-year gaps are long gone. Now it’s more like six-day gaps.
“Two of our first three games are at night,” Evans said. “We will face some challenges and some getting used to, but the great thing about this contract is the exposure it brings to programs within the conference. Now you’re talking about the SEC on ESPN or CBS, and it’s a brand-new thing.
“Sometimes you have to make certain sacrifices if you want this type of coverage and the dollars that come along with it. We, as member institutions, determined this was the right direction.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...