Pac-12 football: 6 ideas (a few of them radical) to overhaul the schedule and maximize media value

The Pac-12 took a major step toward fully restructuring its football model last month when it changed the process for determining which teams play for the championship.

And there are more changes to come.

Later this year, commissioner George Kliavkoff will begin negotiating a new media rights agreement for the contract cycle beginning in 2024.

The Pac-12 must get creative with the football schedule in order to maximize revenue for the campuses and exposure for the product.

The Hotline has six ideas, some of which have been published here previously:

1. Play early

We first proposed 9 a.m. kickoffs three years ago. Since then, only one Pac-12 home game has filled the FOX ‘Big Noon’ broadcast window: The USC-Arizona State season opener in Nov. ’20, during the disrupted COVID year.

It had the misfortune of starting 30 minutes after the presidential election was called by the major networks but  nonetheless generated a 1.3 rating and 2.3 million viewers — more than double the audience for the best-rated Pac-12 night kickoffs.

That suggests a 9 a.m. kickoff would draw at 3 million viewers on a normal Saturday. Precious few Pac-12 games hit that mark during the season.

In our view, the conference should schedule a handful of 9 a.m. home games per season on whichever broadcast  network partners with the Pac-12 during the next contract cycle. If you’re kicking that early, it must be shown over-the-air, not on cable or streaming.

The window would work particularly well for games in the Mountain Time Zone (10 a.m. local starts) and for non-conference matchups against Power Five opponents. Many Pac-12 teams practice in the mornings anyhow, and opponents from the Eastern half of the country probably would prefer the 9 a.m. kickoffs in order to get home earlier.

The primary reason for playing at 9 a.m. is the glut of games in the middle of the day. With Disney taking over the entirety of the SEC’s football inventory starting in 2024, broadcast windows will be scarce at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific on both ABC and ESPN.

Playing early carries an additional benefit:

It ensures the college football studio shows on ESPN and Fox will discuss the Pac-12 game — and show highlights — throughout the day.

The exposure on studio shows isn’t factored into TV ratings for the game, but it’s substantial.

2. Play late

For exactly the same reason the Pac-12 should dabble in 9 a.m. kickoffs — the glut of Power Five games in the middle of the day — so should it commit to playing night games.

That’s right: The night games are worthwhile when done correctly.

In fact, we suggest two outlets:

— Regardless of the other media partnerships forged at the negotiating table, Kliavkoff should lock down the 7/7:30 p.m. broadcast window on ESPN — the time slot has significant value for the conference and the network.

At that point, the media landscape is clear of competition from other Power Five leagues, but plenty of college football fans across the country are awake and in need of a nightcap.

Many Pac-12 supporters despise the night kickoffs, and the FS1 and Pac-12 Networks games carry limited value. But the ESPN broadcasts have considerable reach and should be a pillar of the conference’s media rights package.

— In addition, the Pac-12 should aim for regular, and perhaps weekly 7 p.m. (Pacific) kickoffs on an over-the-air network.

That broadcast window debuted last season with Stanford-USC on FOX, and we’ll see it again on Week Three of the 2022 season when USC hosts Fresno State on FOX at 7:30 p.m.

The Pac-12 could agree to concurrent ‘Saturday Night Football’ kickoffs — one on ESPN and one on broadcast TV — or it could create an exclusive package with a single, premier game that alternates weekly between networks.

Either way, 7 p.m. starts on ESPN and FOX/ABC/CBS must be part of the next media rights agreement.

3. Play non-conference games in November

This shift isn’t possible during the current media rights agreements with Fox and ESPN but could be written into the next contract.

We aren’t suggesting the conference take an SEC-style approach and schedule a barrage of creampuff opponents on the first or second Saturday of November.

Also, there would be limits on available opponents because so many FBS teams are locked into league games at that time of year. (This includes Brigham Young, which is set to join the Big 12 in 2023.)

But the Pac-12 should give teams the contractual option to step outside of conference play in November.

If done strategically, it could create a competitive benefit and produce flexibility for other parts of the schedule — flexibility that would behoove not only the team in question but the entire conference.

After all, the master schedule is essentially a jigsaw puzzle.

4. Adopt the pod system.

The Hotline espoused the benefits of a pod schedule several weeks ago, when the Pac-12 announced that division winners would no longer have automatic berths into the championship game.

We expect the current schedule rotation, which is based on division alignment, to be eliminated in the next 24 months.

When a new model is crafted, the conference should use pods as the foundation:

Pod A: Washington and Oregon schools

Pod B: California schools

Pod C: Mountain/Desert (or Four Corners) schools

The pod system creates three annual opponents for every team. It’s the only model that would allow the California schools to play each other annually, preserve the Oregon-Washington game and guarantee the natural rivalries.

5. Play the day before Labor Day

The Hotline has long believed the Pac-12 should take over the football world on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

There is no NFL competition and very little on the college front. This year, for instance, only one game is scheduled: Florida State vs. LSU at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific on ABC).

Our suggestion: Play a doubleheader at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. … or 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The first could be a non-conference game, perhaps at a neutral site (Las Vegas or Los Angeles) against a willing Power Five partner. Those might be few and far between because of the Sunday night return to campus and reduced preparation time for a Week Two game.

Or the Pac-12 simply could schedule conference games for both ends of the doubleheader, with the second matching teams from proximal campuses.

(You don’t want the Washington schools flying home from Arizona on Sunday night, or vice versa).

Fortunately, we might get a peek into the potential for a Labor Day showcase.

USC and LSU will collide in the 2024 season opener in Las Vegas on the holiday weekend, but the day hasn’t been set — it could be slotted into the Sunday window.

Our guess: The Pac-12 eventually claims that valuable ground on a permanent basis.

6. Play the day before Thanksgiving

As far as we know, there has never been a Power Five game on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week — certainly not in the current media rights era.

Heck, even the MAC is shut down on Turkey Day Eve.

And yet, the audience is hungry for football. By 5 p.m. (Pacific), many people are off work and kicking back, counting the hours until the NFL and college games on Thanksgiving.

How would a Wednesday affair work? Delicately.

As with Pac-12 games on Thursdays, the participants in a Wednesday matchup must be idle the previous weekend.

That’s a tricky situation for the conference, because a weekend off in the middle of November would force teams to play 11 weeks in a row, unless …

Those teams have two byes: One in the middle of the season, one the weekend before Thanksgiving.

The second bye would result from opening the season on Week Zero — the Saturday before the traditional start of the competition calendar.

Games on Week Zero have become fairly frequent as the NCAA grants more waivers. It will have even less influence on Power Five football in the future as the constitution undergoes a makeover.

The more daunting obstacles for the Pac-12 would be internal:

— The Wednesday matchup likely would be a rivalry game given the spot on the calendar, so fans of the visiting team would have to travel home that night or early on Thanksgiving.

For most of the rivalries, that shouldn’t be a problem. Only Utah-Colorado and the Apple Cup span significant distances.

— Pac-12 coaches might fret over a potential competitive advantage if one of the teams playing the day before Thanksgiving ends up in the conference championship game against a team that played the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The Wednesday team would have extra rest while a Saturday participant would have a short week (if the championship game is played on Friday).

How likely is that scenario?

Not likely enough to dismiss the idea without gauging interest from media partners.

Creativity with the future football schedule isn’t a concept for the Pac-12. Given the money and exposure at stake, it’s a requirement.

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