What do Alabama and Tennessee football fans have in common, as well as fans of Ole Miss and Mississippi State?
They have stayed up awfully late this season.
Saturday night's Tennessee-Mississippi State game in Starkville kicked off shortly after 9 EDT on ESPN2, and it didn't conclude until early this morning. It had some company, as Texas A&M's game against Louisiana Tech had a 9:15 start on ESPNU.
"I'm usually in bed by the time we hit the third or fourth quarter in these late games," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said recently. "You've got to adapt, and you've got to make do. It's not something we can control."
The Southeastern Conference receives $150 million a year from ESPN and $55 million annually from CBS for broadcasting rights, and each of the league's 14 institutions is guaranteed to have 11 of its 12 regular-season football games televised. This isn't the first year in which an SEC game has kicked off at 9 EDT, but the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M have given the league's television partners more contests to juggle.
At the midway point of this SEC season, four games have kicked off at 9 EDT or later.
"We've had more this year than we had last year, and there is some concern," said SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack, who oversees the league's television contracts. "It's a fine line of trying to make it work between a fan attending the game and the fan watching on television to accommodate as many games as possible. A lot of times when that happens, there is a 6 o'clock game leading into the 9 o'clock game, so we can fit as many games into TV windows as possible.
"It is always 8 o'clock local time. We would never play a 9 o'clock Eastern start for a home team."
Ole Miss has been saddled with two late games this season on ESPN, hosting Texas on Sept. 15 and playing at Alabama on Sept. 29. Both games were scheduled to kick off at 9:15, but the game in Tuscaloosa was backed up to a 9:26 start.
That made it the latest kickoff at an SEC venue in league history.
"There is good and bad in it," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "The TV exposure is great for the program, and it's great for the league. I certainly wouldn't think it would be good to start games any later, but players in this day and age have to know that they're not always going to play at 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and they have to be able to adapt to that."
Said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: "We're grateful for our television relationships, but at the same time it is a long day. I would personally rather tee it off earlier."
Womack said several limitations were put in place when the league signed its lucrative television pacts in 2008 and that those were not affected by the arrivals of Missouri and Texas A&M. No SEC team in the Central time zone can host more than one 9 p.m. EDT kickoff a season, and no traveling league member from the Eastern time zone can have such a late start in two consecutive seasons.
So no 9 p.m. EDT kicks for the Volunteers in 2013.
"The biggest concern I have is just for the fans," Dooley said. "We've obviously had these discussions in our meetings, because from a fan perspective that's what has made this game so special - the support we have. Any time you make it tough on the fans, it's not something that I've ever been for.
"I hope there are ways to make it to where it's a lot better for the fans, helps you with the gate and all that other stuff."