CFB Programs Unsure If Earlier Games Will Increase Pac-12 Attendance

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When the Pac-12 opens its 2019 campaign on Aug. 24 with Arizona-Hawaii, eyeballs could be focused not on the field, but on the game-clock. With much discussion surrounding college football’s attendance plateaus, the Pac-12 is considering a change that deviates from its traditionalist history. 

During Pac-12 media day on July 24, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott announced that the conference was experimenting with the idea of kickoff times as early as 9 a.m. PT. This progressive mentality has many in the industry wondering if this could solve the Pac-12’s recent attendance struggles. 

According to the NCAA’s annual football attendance report, the Pac-12’s average home crowd in 2018 was 46,442 fans per game – a decrease of 3,159 year-over-year. It not only marked a sixth consecutive season of declining attendance, but was the conference’s lowest figures since 1982.

While sources in the Pac-12 say the plan is still merely speculative, more information is being revealed about it. 

According to sources in college football, the Pac-12 and league broadcaster Fox have begun initial discussions exploring the possibility of introducing early-morning kickoffs for Pac-12 teams. These talks haven’t extended fully to Pac-12 shareholders, but the goal still is to address member schools’ worries about the current slate of night games and how to increase the visibility and reach for them. One important caveat: if Pac-12 officials were to experiment with 9 a.m. kickoffs, it would be voluntary and only for member schools interested in participating.

When speaking with Spokane-based newspaper The Spokesman Review, Washington State football coach Mike Leach was adamant in his displeasure of the potential time shift. According to Leach, given the strict rules surrounding players’ practice times, 9 a.m. kickoffs would rollback the NCAA’s concerns about player safety.

“If you do anything, you first ask yourself, ‘is it good for the players?,’” said Leach. “And it’s not good for the players because they have to get up at 4 or 4:30 in the morning, I don’t think there’s anything good about that.”

“The NCAA limited how early you can get players up to practice and I think they recognize 4 and 4:30 is too early – so it certainly is for a game,” said Leach.

READ MORE: CFB Community Divided On How To Solve Attendance Woes

Outside of the Pac-12, even SEC programs have questions about earlier-kickoff times. According to Kyle Campbell, associate athletic director for communications at Ole Miss, early start times haven’t been successful for its football program.

While he backs innovation and creativity for addressing attendance problems, Campbell states that even Rebels games at 11 a.m. CT have produced lackluster crowds. If Scott is serious about starting Pac-12 contests at 9 a.m. PT, Campbell argues that more problems could arise for the beleaguered conference.

“It’s imperative that we think unconventionally in regards to ticket sales, attendance and gameday experience – it is a must that we think outside the box,” said Campbell. “However, we would have concerns in regards to ticket revenue and crowd generation kicking off that early. I cannot speak for other universities, but at Ole Miss, 11 a.m. (CT) kickoffs are not popular with our fans and have resulted in attendance issues. I would expect an earlier game time to be even more problematic.”

With both Campbell and Leach showing apprehension toward Scott’s proposal, one school has emerged as a possible volunteer: The University of Colorado at Boulder. After finishing the 2018 season at 5-7 despite winning its first five games, the Buffaloes are hoping for more sustained success – and more consistent crowds.

According to David Plati, Colorado’s associate athletic director and sports information director for men’s football, it’s unlikely that the Buffaloes will have to play an earlier-than-scheduled game in 2019. However, it wouldn’t be the first time the university has drastically altered its game times.

On Nov. 28, 2003, the Buffaloes hosted rival Nebraska at 10 a.m. in front of a sold-out crowd of 53,434 at Folsom Field. According to Plati, selling out the 2003 contest resulted in a 2007 rematch with Nebraska, which was held on Nov. 23 at 10 a.m. With each affair taking place on Black Friday, Plati believes that many students stayed on-campus for the holiday.

That meant a stronger-than-usual crowd was on hand to watch the Buffaloes again take on the  Cornhuskers, where a win for either 5-6 side secured them a spot in a postseason bowl game. Fortunately for Colorado, they not only won, 65-51, but brought in another sold-out crowd of 51,403, showing that earlier kickoff times could work – especially in Boulder.

“It was a rival – fair share of Nebraska fans coming over to watch and sit in the stadium as well,” said Plati. “But, this is still a decent market to look at that we had two sell out games on those 10 a.m. kickoffs. That was in November where you’re not talking about a beautiful 75, 80-degree day. It was going to be in the 40s at best – but it was encouraging to see the fans come out.”

Front Office Sports reached out to all twelve schools in the Pac-12 to comment on this article, eleven of which either declined to comment or did not respond to the request.

READ MORE: Is technology to blame for the decline in college football attendance?

While Colorado has proven – albeit in a small sample size – it could perform well with early kickoff times, Pac-12 chief marketing officer Danette Leighton is cautious in extending that notion across the other member schools. What works for USC might not help UCLA, so Leighton wants to make sure that the conference evaluates attendance at each specific university without grouping their needs together. 

“What’s really important in any of this is to realize that it’s not one size fits all,” said Leighton. “Much like all of us are individuals, we all have our own unique interests and desires – therefore our society has become much more tailored and customized. I think this is the evolution that sports entertainment is also navigating its way through – by really understanding what the fans want and listening to them and having ways and tools to be able to do it.”

Leighton and the Pac-12 declined to comment specifically on the early morning kickoff times.

According to Plati, while many factors affect attendance statistics, there are two of extreme importance: record and opponent. If the Buffaloes are playing poorly, attendance will likely be lower. If they are overachieving, fans will come regardless – no matter what time the game is scheduled for.

“If we’re hot, then the opponent becomes less of a factor because then people obviously want to come out and see you play anyway,” said Plati. “If you’re hanging around .500 and maybe you’re out of the title hunt for the division title, then I think the opponent would matter a little bit more.”