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College Hotline - Pac-12 football: Radical suggestion for the schedule dilemma

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    After checking with sources inside and outside the conference, it has become abundantly clear that no dramatic changes are coming to the Pac-12 football schedule – specifically, to crush of night games.

    There might be a few tweaks, but it’s all on the extreme margins.

    FOX and ESPN wanted content for their night broadcast windows and were willing to pay handsomely for it. The conference wanted a handsome amount of money and was willing to fill those night windows.

    Which means the central issue remains:

    How can the conference generate more exposure for all the meaningful games — the conference games — that are played concurrently, after dark, one cluttered Saturday after another beginning in late September.

    I’m thinking of a Saturday like Oct. 17, 2015, when there were two day games and a triple-whammy of night kickoffs (Arizona-Colorado at 6, ASU-Utah at 7 and Oregon-Washington at 7:30). I could have selected another example — there are plenty.

    From from a logistical standpoint, easy answers don’t exist: The number of games is fixed and the number of Saturday broadcast windows is fixed.

    So the Hotline, the home of the Zipper Plan — remember that one during realignment? (splitting the Pac-12 divisions by natural rivals) — has come up with a radical solution.

    In three words:

    Labor Day Sunday.




    That’s right: The first Sunday of the football season is an untapped exposure bonanza.

    There are no NFL games; the regular season hasn’t started and the exhibitions conclude the previous Thursday.

    And there have been a sprinkle of college games on Labor Day Sunday over the years, but nothing regular and nothing substantive (Louisville vs. Ohio, for example).

    The Hotline is proposing something immensely substantive for the Pac-12: An annual Labor Day Sunday doubleheader of conference games.

    Yes, conference games — two of them — on the first Sunday of the season.

    Play one at 1 p.m. and the other at 4:30 or 5 p.m., depending on the network and its broadcast windows.

    That would give the Pac-12 seven consecutive hours of only-game-in-town national exposure during prime viewing hours on the east coast, when football fans are desperate for games and there’s nothing available – not even NFL exhibitions.

    Both would be inter-division games.

    Here’s how it would work:

    *** The first game would match a Pacific Northwest team against an Arizona/Mountain team, and because it would end by 5, the visitor would be home before midnight.

    Monday morning classes aren’t the concern — there’s no school — but the earlier the teams are home, the more palatable the situation with the short week coming up. (More on that in a moment.)

    *** The second game (kickoff: 4:30 or 5 p.m.) would be a California Special, with one of the Bay Area teams facing one of the Los Angeles teams.

    Again, the holiday weekend adds to the allure: It’s a perfect opportunity for Stanford/Cal fans to visit Southern California or for USC/UCLA fans to visit the Bay Area.

    (Remember, the so-called NorCal/SoCal “weekenders” were an important reason the California quartet held fast to playing each other every year when the divisions were created and the schedule rotation adjusted.)

    *** Participation in the Labor Day Sunday doubleheader would work on a home-and-home rotation basis:

    If Oregon played Arizona in Tucson one year, the teams would meet in Eugene the next, then neither would be involved again for at least six more years, until the cycle renewed and the opponents changed.

    The scheduling process would have to take into account the Stanford/USC games with Notre Dame that occupy Thanksgiving Saturday in alternating years and are the reason the Cardinal and Trojans meet early in the season. (You couldn’t ask the Trojans to play Cal in Week 1 and Stanford in Week 2 or 3. The private-school series would have to be pushed to late September/early October.)

    You’d also have to solve the issue of an afternoon game in Arizona in the years the Wildcats or Sun Devils were scheduled to host the first half of the Labor Day Sunday doubleheader. The schools are firmly and justifiably opposed to playing afternoon home games during the blistering months of September and October.

    The problem would arise once every eight years (on average) for each desert team, but if that doesn’t work for public safety reasons, then switching to a night kickoff on those rare occasions might be the solution.

    *** Obviously, the teams playing Labor Day Sunday doubleheader would face six-day weeks, but that’s no different than the current schedule with Saturday-Friday games.

    The format would call for the participants to play non-conference home games in Week 2, preferably of the mid- or low-level variety (i.e., non-Power 5).

    Because the non-conference contracts are made years in advance, a Labor Day Sunday doubleheader couldn’t be implemented immediately. The league would need three or four years to manipulate the participants’ schedules and find available non-conference opponents to fill late-season dates.

    (Another option: Labor Day Sunday participants would have a bye in Week 2. Because one of the three non-conference games would be moved to the back half of the schedule, the need for a mid/late-season bye would be somewhat mitigated — nobody would be forced to play league games for eight consecutive weeks.)

    *** Now that we’ve addressed the basics, let’s anticipate the backlash:

    The coaches won’t want any part of opening the season with a conference game.

    To that I say: Too bad.

    Neither game would be intra-division, and because of the home-and-home natural, there is no competitive disadvantage over the sweep of the doubleheader rotation.

    This is about the greater good of the conference: Seven consecutive hours, broadcast nationally, with zero football competition.

    Of equal significance is the relief it would provide to the stressed schedule in the back half of the season.

    The goal, once again, is to maximize exposure for the Pac-12’s premium product:

    Oregon vs. Tennessee Tech is not premium product. Play that game at 7 p.m. on the Pac12Nets on Oct. 30, when Washington-UCLA is on ESPN2, and it’s not a big deal — it’s okay for Oregon-Tennessee Tech to get lost in the clutter.

    But Oregon vs. Arizona is premium product. You want as many eyeballs on that one as possible. If the participants happen to have a Heisman candidate, or are consider playoff contenders, all the better — everyone in the country, fans, voters and committee members, will see it.

    (I’m using the Ducks and Wildcats as the example, but pick any two.)

    Yes, yes, yes: The Labor Day Sunday doubleheader of conference games would mean more non-conference dates later in the season — many of them of the low-level FBS/FBC variety — and the Pac-12 takes immense pride in not being the SEC (i.e., no November noncon creampuffs).

    But we’re only talking about four non-conference games sprinkled in over a two-month span in the second half of the season. It’s not close to the SEC’s everyone-take-Saturday-off approach in the middle of November.

    I’m not suggesting that the logistics would be easy, or that agreement among all stakeholders would be swift and smooth. The coaches, athletic director and network partners would all have to be on board, or at least not staunchly opposed.

    And if a doubleheader is too much, if it’s too complicated to arrange or draws too much opposition, then just play one game on Labor Day Sunday (at 5 p.m.).

    Using that format, teams would participate only twice in 12 years, on average – the coaches might not raise as big a stink.

    Either way, the league should give it serious consideration. The premium product too often gets lost in the Saturday night crush. An untapped resource … the only untapped resource, really … is available, offering unprecedented exposure and zero competition.

    The time has come.

    xxxxxxxxxxxx

    * Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

    * My e-book, “Andrew Luck: Inside the Making of a No. 1 Pick,” is available for $2.99 on Amazon for Kindles and for other devices (PCs, iPads and iPhones) with the free Kindle app.

    * Download the Bay Area News Group’s new iPad app for more college sports and other news, or check out college sports coverage on MercuryNews.com.

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