Florida Atlantic. Southern Miss. Middle Tennessee. UL Monroe. Western Kentucky. Kent State. Fresno State. Colorado State. Arkansas State. Louisiana. New Mexico State. Southern Miss, again.
Those were the non-conference opponents that Alabama scheduled for home games in the month of September from the 2014 season to this season.
Ask yourself, honestly, if you’d pay money to buy a ticket to watch your favorite team host one of those programs or if you, the casual college football fan without any allegiance to the Crimson Tide or those Group of Five schools, would be excited to spend a Saturday night on your couch to watch the primetime matchup between Alabama and one of those schools.
This story is about the intersection of Alabama’s dominance, its scheduling philosophy and the big-time money involved in major college athletics.
After the SEC announced on Monday the TV times and networks for the conference’s Week 4 games, which included an 11 a.m. CT kick time for Southern Miss at Alabama, Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne and President Stuart Bell released a statement expressing their disappointment.
“We are disappointed that our game against Southern Miss has been selected as a daytime kickoff at home. We realize we’ve played more non-conference day games at home in September than any other SEC team since 2014. There have been a number of conversations with our conference office, and they also recognize the challenges these kick times present for our student-athletes and fans.”
While there are real challenges to an 11 a.m. CT kickoff that are worth acknowledging, like potential heat-related concerns for players and fans who are outside all afternoon, they’re not challenges that are unique to Alabama.
It gets hot in the summer and early fall.
Welcome to the South.
Statement from President Bell and me. pic.twitter.com/pb1lDHSEWp
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) September 9, 2019
What is (almost) unique to Alabama, however, is the lack of a single, let alone multiple, Power Five non-conference opponent(s) who was booked to come to Tuscaloosa between 2014 and 2019. That’s because that would probably require Alabama to also play said Power Five opponent(s) on the road in their college town, in their home stadium, in front of their home fans.
The Crimson Tide’s only regular-season, non-conference road games — not counting the early-season, neutral-site games Alabama has become accustomed to playing — under Nick Saban came at Duke in 2010 and at Penn State in 2011.
Since 2014, the season that Alabama’s brass highlighted in its statement, it’s not hard to find other SEC schools that have scheduled home-and-home series with other Power Five schools.
Auburn hosted No. 2 Clemson in 2016, Vanderbilt hosted No. 18 Kansas State in 2017, Mississippi State hosts Kansas State this week, Ole Miss hosts Cal in Week 4 of this season, Georgia hosted Clemson in 2014 and Notre Dame goes to Athens later this month.
Those matchups, outside of the games involving the Mississippi schools this season, were rewarded with an evening or nighttime kickoff.
Heck, Vandy went 5-7 in 2017, the Commodores probably have the worst football program in the SEC and a Vanderbilt-Kansas State matchup is among the least sexy Power Five matchups you can think of, but guess what, the game was still rewarded with a kickoff in primetime.
Alabama and the SEC’s network partners pay the conference and its member institutions a pretty penny for their television broadcast rights and the networks are looking to make money, too.
If you’re a television executive, why would you schedule a game in primetime if the outcome’s going to be determined by 8:30 p.m. ET?
The Crimson Tide was a 55-point favorite at home over New Mexico State last week and Alabama opened as a 25-point favorite over South Carolina in Week 3, according to the Vegas Insider consensus, which means a lot of Alabama games are going to be out of hand by the second quarter, even some against SEC competition, and viewers at home are ultimately going to change the channel to a more competitive game.
The money — that’s paid to schools because of their football programs and that’s at stake for television networks — has skyrocketed in the last 15 years.
Last fiscal year, the University of Alabama’s athletic department received $22,651,200 from its football program’s media rights, according to the university’s 2018 NCAA Financial Report.
LSU, which made $12.2 million from its football program’s media rights in 2018, made just $122,511 from its team’s media rights in 2004, according to the university’s 2004 NCAA Financial Report, which means the university’s revenue from its team’s media rights has seen roughly a +10,000% change from 15 years ago.
Back in 2004, LSU made $19.1 million from football ticket sales and $2.4 million from program sales, concessions, novelty sales and parking. In 2018, LSU made $34.5 million from ticket sales and $2.9 million from program sales, concessions, novelty sales and parking, which combined is roughly a 74 percent increase from 15 years ago.
Compare those two numbers: from 2004 to 2018, the value of LSU’s media rights have increased by 10,000 percent, while ticket and concessions sales have just changed by just 74 percent, not accounting for inflation.
That’s about as lopsided as Alabama’s 62-10 win over New Mexico State last weekend.
If you’re asking why many programs across the country are experiencing a decline in fan attendance or why television networks have the power to choose what time games start, the answer lies in the previous paragraph. The money paid by networks to schools is why the television product is typically a bigger priority than the number of times that stadium turnstiles spin.
Sure, maybe it’s curious as to why LSU has played so many more night games than Alabama in September against non-conference opponents, which have been of a similar ilk as the Crimson Tide’s opponents, but no one forced Alabama to schedule almost half of Conference USA in a five-year stretch.
Updating the scoreboard since 2014:@alabamaftbl 12 non-conference September home games. Night games: 1
LSU: 12 non-conference September home games. Night games: 12.*
*LSU’s 2015 game vs. McNeese State (6:30 p.m. kickoff scheduled) was cancelled due to weather.
— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) September 9, 2019
If anything, this discussion taught us two things: money talks and there’s always something to complain about.
Some schools and their fanbases complain about an old rival ducking them for a home-and-home series, their conference’s lopsided divisional balance or fan attendance.
For Alabama, the most dominant program this decade, the complaint is about what time their “buy” games are played.