By Jim Weber
Has something felt missing from ABC’s “Saturday Night Football” this fall?
Let me give you a hand: It’s Pac-12 football.
So far this fall, “SNF” has been to the four other BCS conferences it has contracts with – the ACC, Big 12, Big 10 and even the woeful AAC – but not to arguably the second best conference in college football. It’s a damn shame too because “Saturday Night Football” has become the king of college football broadcasts by drawing around seven million viewers each weekend.
The curious absence of Pac-12 games on “Saturday Night Football” this fall has even led many people to assume ABC isn’t allowed to show the conference during prime time because of Disney’s joint deal with FOX Sports that started last fall. That isn’t the case, as Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit called one Pac-12 game last year (Stanford at Oregon) and one non-conference game hosted by a Pac-12 school (Notre Dame at USC).
But compare the number of Pac-12 appearances on “Saturday Night Football” over the last one-and-a-half seasons with that of the Big Ten. The B1G has had at least one team on ABC’s Saturday night game eight times over the last two seasons – including the last four weeks in a row.
Many Pac-12 games this season have instead aired very late on Saturday night on one of ESPN’s channels, lasting until around 2:00 AM on the East Coast. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott recently said that’s the way the conference wants it because the ratings are high and there’s less competition with other games. I don’t believe that for a second. The Ohio State-Northwestern game had nearly three times as many viewers as the Washington-Stanford game despite the Pac-12 contest being equally important and exciting.
The truth is that Pac-12 football games aren’t making it to “Saturday Night Football” because it’s getting paid $3 billion over the next 12 years in a complicated deal with both FOX and ESPN that limits the conference from having Musburger and Herbstreit call their games.
Here’s how the deal works, as explained to me by ESPN publicist Mike Humes and VP of college football programming Ilan Ben-Hanan:
ESPN/ABC and FOX split the Pac-12 football games between the two of them with one very important rule that most people aren’t aware of: When FOX airs a game between the 7:00-10:00 PM ET window on Saturday night, ESPN and ABC cannot. Between those two things, there are very few opportunities for “Saturday Night Football” to air Pac-12 games.
Two of the three biggest Pac-12 games of the year so far – No. 23 Arizona State at No. 5 Stanford on Sept. 21 and No. 2 Oregon at No. 16 Washington this weekend – were alloted to FOX. The other – last weekend’s game between Washington and Stanford – wasn’t picked for “Saturday Night Football” because the decision had to be made months ago. ABC picked to air Ohio State at Northwestern instead, presumably because the Buckeyes are one of the biggest brands in college football and few could have predicted how strong the Huskies would start the season (the choice paid off with a great game and viewership of 7.3 million).
Ben-Hanan told me he guaranteed at least one Pac-12 game would make it on “Saturday Night Football” but it’s unclear when that will be. This Saturday doesn’t have an ABC night game (Musburger is calling the noon game between Texas and Oklahoma while Herbstreit is in Seattle for “College GameDay”), next week will be the gigantic matchup between No. 6 Florida State and No. 3 Clemson and the week after that, “SNF” is headed back to Columbus for Penn State vs. No. 4 Ohio State in what will likely be a blowout.
That means that Week 10 on November 2nd is the first possibility that the Pac-12 could be featured on “Saturday Night Football” and I would venture to guess the “SNF” game will instead be Miami (FL) at Florida State – especially if both keep winning. It won’t be the following week as the Pac-12 game of the year between No. 2 Oregon at No. 5 Stanford will be played on Thursday, November 7th. (Ben-Hanan insisted this was done to showcase the game without other college football competition, although I still find it curious to air one of the best college football games of the year on a weeknight at 9:00 PM ET.)
Looking at the rest of the college football schedule, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only time the Pac-12 is on “Saturday Night Football” is UCLA at USC all the way on November 30th (FOX has the rights to the Civil War and Apple Cup), which will likely get obscured by the much more meaningful games on Rivalry Weekend.
The lack of Pac-12 games aired on ABC prime time is a shame for the “Saturday Night Football” broadcast that is starting to feel like Big Ten Network 2.0. Historically, the Pac-12 is already the most underexposed conference in college football. This year, fans aren’t getting a chance to see the second best conference in college football’s premier TV time slot.
Commissioner Larry Scott can fortunately wipe away his tears over this with $100 bills. The rest of us aren’t as fortunate.