SEC making millions upon millions on TV football, but fans jacked around in process

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Blake Williams/MSU athletics

It was hot as the blazes for Mississippi State’s first three home games, all played in the afternoon to accommodate television.

Football coaches always tell us you have to play them one game at a time, as if there were any other way.

So football coaches should stop reading now, because we’re about to look ahead a week. A week from this Saturday, fifth-ranked LSU will head to Starkville to play Mississippi State. We don’t know what time that game will start. Might be 11 a.m. Might be 2:30 p.m. Might be 5 p.m.

Rick Cleveland

We won’t learn the starting time until late Saturday night or early Sunday morning when the TV networks, which televise SEC games, decide. LSU and State fans must wait until then to make their plans.

Fans of South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Georgia are in the same predicament. They don’t know the start times of the Florida at South Carolina or Kentucky at Georgia games either. Could be morning. Could be afternoon. Could be evening. Keep in mind, flights are involved in some cases. So are motel/hotel rooms. Dinner reservations. Tail-gating preparations.

And that’s not to mention, kids’ soccer games, fall baseball schedules, dance recitals, etc. All plans must be put on hold.

In the SEC you rarely know kickoff times two weeks ahead, surely an inconvenience for fans. In this case, you don’t know until six days ahead, which is crazy.

Question: Is there any other sport, at any level, in which you don’t know the start time until six days ahead?

Answer: No.

“No other sport that does this,” said Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin. “This week, I was talking to one of our fans, who lives in Chicago and is also a big Bears fan. He told me that every season, he knows months ahead what time every Bears game will be played and can make his plans accordingly. For our games, he has to wait until two weeks, and sometimes one week, ahead. When you look at it from that standpoint, it’s an issue. It’s another obstacle to getting people to come to the games.”

CBS is the hold-up here. Normally, we know SEC kickoff times 13 days ahead – not ideal, but better than six. Twice per season, CBS can exercise an option to wait and see the results of the previous Saturday’s games to choose a game for its prized 2:30 p.m. slot on the Saturday TV schedule. In this case, CBS wanted to see the results of this Saturday’s LSU-Florida, State-Tennessee, South Carolina-Georgia, Kentucky-Arkansas games before choosing next week’s game. After CBS makes its pick late Saturday night, ESPN and the SEC Network will then place the other games. And why has the Oct. 19 Texas A&M-Ole Miss game already been slated for 6:30 p.m. on the SEC Network? Because CBS passed on it.

You will also note that the Oct. 19 Tennessee-Alabama game, traditionally a CBS 2:30 game, has been slated for 8 p.m. on ESPN. Why? Two reasons really: 1) Alabama has publicly asked for a night game, 2) according to contract, no conference team can be chosen by CBS more than five times in a season. With Tennessee so far down this season, CBS doesn’t want to use up one of its five Bama games with what appears to be a mismatch.

These TV contracts were negotiated long ago. And, yes, CBS and ESPN pay dearly for the right to set starting times for their broadcasts. Each conference school received a check for $43 million and change this year. Much of that – probably 75 percent of it – came from the networks.

As one SEC athletic director put it: “You go around the league’s campuses and you look at all the new athletic facilities. ESPN and CBS built most of those.”

Still, it seems to this observer there should be a happy medium and some common sense involved in the next TV negotiations. Because, if you watch much SEC football on TV you surely have started to notice a big change in recent seasons. That is, when cameras show the entire stadiums, you now see huge swaths of empty seats where there were once butts. Seems to me, many people are staying home – or in their tailgate areas.

There are many reasons. Here’s one: When mankind invented football, it wasn’t meant to be played at 11 a.m. or early afternoon in September in Mississippi. That borders on insanity. Fact: Mississippi State issued extreme heat advisories for its first three home games this season. Heat indexes soared over 100 degrees. It was dangerous.

“It’s certainly something we need to look at it when TV contracts are negotiated,” State athletic director John Cohen said. “Playing at 11 o’clock, under any circumstances, puts a strain on your fan base. In September, heat is the biggest.”

The current CBS contract runs through 2023-24, ESPN for much longer than that.

In the meantime, my guess is more and more fans are going to stay home.