SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As of this writing at 4:55 p.m. PT, I look out from the press box of Levi’s Stadium to the pomp and circumstance of the Pac-12 Championship Game down on the field — and a sea of red seats below.
Tucked among corporate parks in Santa Clara, Levi’s Stadium is not an easy destination to reach at rush hour on a Friday. And yet, for the third time in the four years since the Pac-12 Championship Game took up residency here, the conference’s showcase event is played on a Friday.
That’s no coincidence, according to Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.
“What we’ve found in our TV contracts…in the first few years of the event is that the ratings are significantly higher on Friday night than they are on Saturday,” he said in his address prior to USC and Stanford taking the field. “Sometimes two-and-a-half times [higher]; sometimes less, sometimes more.”
It makes sense. The first Pac-12 Championship Game I worked, the 2013 contest between Arizona State and Stanford, kicked off on Saturday evening opposite the ACC and Big Ten Championships. That’s crowded TV real estate, especially against two conferences with large and passionate fanbases like Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
But in 2013 — as is the case in 2017 — the ACC and Big Ten Championships have national championship implications. The winner of Clemson vs. Miami is likely assured a berth in the field. Wisconsin, should it win the Big Ten, is likely in.
Stanford is out of the Playoff equation, regardless Friday’s outcome. USC has to make a historic jump to get into the final four, despite Scott’s declaration that a two-loss conference champion with the strength-of-schedule and strong upswing to close the season of USC is more deserving than a one-loss team failing to win its conference.
I’m just the messenger, Alabama fans.
USC owes its tenuous Playoff status, in part, to feeding the Friday night demand for TV inventory. The Trojans lost to Washington State by a field goal on Sept. 29, six days after a physical encounter with Cal on the road.
Friday night claimed fellow Pac-12 contenders Washington State on Oct. 13 at Cal, and Washington on Nov. 10 at Stanford.
“It’s something that got a lot of conversation over the last couple of months as we went over the process to prepare the 2018 schedule,” Scott said. “We go through a process where we decide, are we going to change any of the scheduling parameters.
“We’re always going to have Thursday and Friday night games, to start with,” he continued. “Those are contractual obligations to our broadcast partners, and we’ve got about 10 different scheduling parameters that get put into a computer with an outside consultant that we work with…This year, one of the priorities was looking at those scenarios…We added a parameter that says you cannot schedule a team to play a Friday night road game after a Saturday road game.”
That issue will be addressed moving forward, but the contractual obligation to weeknight games ensures there will be some level of controversy as it pertains to Friday nights.
A Friday night Pac-12 Championship with a tarped upper deck and late-arriving crowd is one such controversy.
“I think it looks good on TV,” Scott said. “Of course we’d love it to be full, but I think it’s a strong attendance for our game. I think there are always going to be challenges with neutral-site games, and especially Friday night games.
“We’ve been happy. OUr teams have been very happy with it here,” he added. “We look at the overall experience.”
Might Las Vegas present a solution? A Friday night on The Strip guarantees a beehive of nearby activity and an attractive destination for out-of-towners. The Pac-12 Basketball Tournament abandoned a cavernous atmosphere in front of swaths of empty seats at Staples Center for a decade, and the event’s flourished since moving to Vegas.
It’s an option after 2019. In the meantime, the Pac-12 Championship looks like a made-for-TV event.