In the aftermath of one of the most controversial Heisman verdicts ever, #Pac12AfterDark quickly became labeled as the culprit. Since voters on the East Coast couldn't possibly do their jobs and watch Stanford after 10:30 EST, Christian McCaffrey couldn't possibly have won the Heisman.
So now, the Pac-12 has opted to cut out up to four of those games from our late-night football slate in an attempt to help fans, allegedly some of the "most loyal in college athletics." Man, I love the world of press releases.
""The increased exposure and revenue from our contracts with ESPN and FOX Sports have been instrumental to our success, but we continue to work hard to minimize as much as possible the negative impact late start times have on our fans who travel great distances to see our teams in person," Oregon AD Rob Mullens continued. Yeah, "student-athletes" travel pretty far to go play in road games too, but that's for a different day. The intent behind this isn't necessarily to prevent another Heisman snub, but it could have that effect, even though it would only eliminate a maximum of four late games.
Now, the gems of #Pac12AfterDark have been relegated to either 2:30 or 6:00 local kickoffs and can "overlap with an ESPN or FOX exclusive TV window." Is that really enough to prevent another Christian McCaffrey-esque Heisman snubbing?
Among other issues, the main thing that hurt McCaffrey was that not enough eyes were focused on his viciously delicate cuts and smoothly explosive bursts of speed. Few had heard of him, much less seen him play.
"I hadn't heard too much about [McCaffrey until the ceremony]," said Iowa senior linebacker Cole Fisher just before the Rose Bowl.
National media outlets weren't aware of McCaffrey's prowess until fairly late in the
hype voting process, so the news didn't travel very well, in part because Stanford played seven games that started after 10:30 EST. Despite having arguably the most statistically impressive season ever, McCaffrey finished second to Derrick Henry in every region except for the West, which he won, and the Mid-Atlantic, where he finished third.
Would moving Pac-12 games into prime-time spots on a second-tier network really create the publicity and hype that a McCaffrey-type would need to win a national Heisman vote?
It's a difficult to argue that moving games from a late slot with no competition to an earlier slot with prime-time competition would benefit a player like McCaffrey tremendously. Why watch Oregon State take on a Heisman contender when you could see the game of the week instead?
Those Musburger-slotted games are appointment television because of the elite teams that are playing. On the other hand, individual Pac-12 players tend to lack the exposure to warrant appointment television. The same issue still exists, regardless of time slots.
Sure, a six o'clock start would be about an hour behind the major national broadcast, but viewers would still miss most of the game. Especially if it was a mediocre game, the game would be firmly within the grasp of the victor, even if there was still an hour or so left in the game. If it were close, they might get to see a fourth quarter Heisman moment or two, but not an entire game's performance, which is what should matter to voters.
The 2:30 (PST) kickoff time is probably a little better than the 6:00 start for national exposure, given that slot is somewhat of a dead time for games. The noon EST games have long since ended, and the noon PST are all about wrapped up, and the rest of the country doesn't have much to do up until the prime time national games. But again, most would miss them because of the somewhat awkward, middle of the day, timing and because the games of the week would start during the fourth quarter of these games.
In the old system, there was little incentive to tune in because it was so late for a second tier game. Now, there's little incentive for most viewers to tune into a second tier game when it coincides with the game that everyone's been waiting for. So the obvious solution is to get rid of all second tier games and teams.
In all seriousness, shifting the timing won't make much of a difference in terms of the Heisman voting. There will always be some sort of "reason" why voters aren't able to watch games, unless every Heisman contender is in the spotlight every game. The games need to compel voters to watch them, not the other way around.
The Heisman is an award centered around hype and tradition, not necessarily pure performance. Outside of USC, the Pac-12 simply doesn't have the football tradition to compete with the other Power Five conferences, and it certainly hurts the hype surrounding their players. The SEC, Big 12, ACC, and Big Ten have the pull of tradition that the Pac-12 simply does not have. It's comfortable to hype an Alabama running back or a quarterback from the Southeast or Texas, but not so much a Stanford running back.
As we've seen with McCaffrey, in the Pac-12 hype takes time to develop. It took until the Rose Bowl for the hype train to truly catch on to McCaffrey, and now the big media conglomerates are zeroing in on McCaffrey -- a year too late. However, things can be done to create more tradition, exposure, and hype around the Pac-12, arguably one of the top two conferences in college football.
Improving the reach of the Pac-12 Network would be a big step forward. It wouldn't just help Heisman candidates' prospects (which shouldn't be the conference's first goal anyway), but it would help create better exposure for the conference as a whole. Only twelve million households can watch the Pac-12 network nationwide, while the Big Ten and SEC Networks have pulled in about seven times more subscribers. A long-awaited deal with DirectTV would be a huge step forward for the conference in this regard -- the second tier games in question go on the network.
Additionally, something needs to change specifically in voters' minds to make them want to watch Pac-12 games. Perhaps the McCaffrey fiasco will flip a switch -- a lack of football tradition like the SEC's (outside of USC) doesn't mean that megastars like McCaffrey aren't up to par with those of the SEC.
The conference has every reason in the world to strike a deal with the television provider, the sports provider with the biggest reach in America. It would create more revenue, through TV deals and increased viewership, which would create a stronger brand of West Coast football. That in turn would help Heisman candidates gain credibility and exposure, assuredly in the conference's best interest.
It's already missed out on four years of extra revenue and publicity since its launch in 2012 -- something needs to be worked out between the two as soon as possible. Even if it's not the perfect deal, it's far better than no deal.