“Run it Back” is a column by Lauren Merola about college football.
USC made headlines for its miracle 28-27 win against Arizona State on Nov. 7. With three minutes left to play, the Trojans scored two touchdowns, both on fourth down, one of which came thanks to a recovered onside kick.
But the most historic thing about this game was not the comeback. It was the kickoff time.
USC gave all football fans the most exciting exchange of plays in the Trojans’ opener during Week 10, but the Trojan victory seemingly got lost under headlines of Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia and Florida.
The ASU-USC game’s TV rating showed the weakness of Pac-12 sports, boasting only a 1.7 overnight rating in the Big Noon window. But what that number doesn’t show you is the 6% increase in viewership from what Pac-12 primetime games averaged on Fox last season, Fox Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill tweeted.
That 6% comes from the experimental, never-before-seen 9 a.m. kickoff time. For a West Coast conference looking to get back in the limelight, the 9 a.m. start means noon in New York. It’s prime TV real estate on the East Coast.
The more exposure, the more national airtime Pac-12 teams get around those glass tables on pre- and post-game shows. The more relevant they become, the more legit they become and ultimately, the more consideration they might — could, should — get for the College Football Playoffs.
But it can’t stop here. It can’t be one and done. All Pac-12 teams have to get on board with earlier start times this season and for seasons to come.
In an earlier time slot, ASU and USC did not have to fight for viewer attention — in the sports realm, at least — because it didn’t interfere with the high-stake games of the weekend. Despite the presidential race being called 30 minutes before the SC-Arizona State game, the matchup still brought in 2.3 million views for Fox in the ‘Big Noon Kickoff’ broadcast. That’s more than double the audiences of the best-rated Pac-12 night games.
Granted, USC has a chance at the playoffs if it wins the Pac-12 and goes undefeated. Every game is technically a high-stakes game, but it pales in comparison to then-No. 1 Clemson battling No. 4 Notre Dame: a game where one team was potentially kicking the other out of the playoffs.
Take the Oregon-Stanford game, for example. That game kicked off at 7:30 p.m. EST. The Clemson-Notre Dame game started at the same time and reeled in 9.44 million views across NBC TV and NBC Sports Digital, not including out-of-home viewership. The Fighting Irish’s takedown of the No. 1 Tigers was the most watched game since the “Bush Push” game against USC in 2005.
That’s what the Pac-12 game had to compete with.
Yes, Oregon will likely win the Pac-12 North. Yes, the game had implications for Oregon’s playoff chances. No, most of the country is not going to watch Oregon-Stanford over Clemson-Notre Dame.
The USC-ASU game almost surely would have seen a bigger increase in TV ratings if the presidential race was not called right before kickoff.
According to Karp, the three major cable news networks — CNN, Fox and MSNBC — saw a 244% increase in viewership from 12-1 p.m. EST. Again, kickoff for the SC-Arizona State game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was noon in the east, 9 a.m. in the west. It makes sense for a viewer to turn to presidential election results over a football game. But the numbers aren’t a fluke; they still speak for themselves. ASU-USC’s 2.3 million views is more than quadruple that of an average nighttime kickoff (which is 500,000, approximately).
“We wanted to come out to the college football world in a very forceful manner with a high-profile game that meant something,” Merton Hanks, who recently joined the Pac-12 as senior associate commissioner for football operations, told ESPN.
The negative effects of a 9 a.m. kick off time almost entirely revolve around the fans. Would fans show up to the Coliseum before they’ve normally even had their morning cup of coffee?
The answer – who knows?
At least in 2020 — and for the foreseeable future — Pac-12 officials don’t have to worry about fan attendance and can fully lean into the idea of early-morning kickoffs. More Pac-12 exposure can, and will, come in the form of 9 a.m. games.
“Run it Back” typically runs every other Wednesday.