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Eyes on Texas: Having the Longhorns play at 11 a.m. makes sense — for TV numbers, anyway

Permission to speak freely, your honor?

As an ink-stained wretch who battles early print deadlines, I’m here to tell the jury one thing. I love all these 11 a.m. kickoffs. Heart emoji.

Sure, getting up super early on a Saturday is a drag. But if it were up to me, they’d start these Texas games at 8. That pegs postgame around lunchtime, and we’d have this well wrapped up long before supper. 

OK, fine. Truth-telling time: if your team is playing at 11 a.m., chances are your team isn’t having the best of seasons.

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Alas, I don’t get to make these decisions. Neither does Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. Nor even Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who isn’t keen on making UT fans or coaches happy these days.

“I recognize when you kick off at 11 a.m., that’s not easy for everybody,” Sarkisian said this week. “Everybody's got other things going on in their lives.”

Mad about Texas playing at 11? Direct all your fan anger toward the anonymous folks at ESPN and Fox. TV networks pay the Big 12’s bills, so they get to call the shots. And in the TV world, calling the shots means deciding when to show which games. 

Texas fans cheer on the Longhorns during last Saturday's game against Oklahoma State at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Texas is on a run of four straight games that have kicked off at 11 a.m. due to TV network decisions, and that streak will grow to five next week against Baylor.

Or, you know, coax the Horns to start winning more. Having double-digit third-quarter leads only to watch those games morph into losses is a sure-fire way to guarantee more 11 a.m. kickoffs. Don’t look now, but Texas will kick off at Baylor at 11 on Oct. 30.

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“I know it’s inconvenient,” said Dr. Jon Lewis, who runs the exhaustive sports TV website Sportsmediawatch.com. If you have any questions about TV ratings, he’s your guy. “It’s not the marquee time of the day, but it’s not a sign of disrespect to be put in the noon (Eastern) window.”

Lewis tracks the Nielsen ratings and total household viewership for all college football games. For example, his spreadsheets reveal that the Georgia-Clemson game Sept. 4 is the most watched game of the season with an estimated 8.863 million viewers. The Alabama-Texas A&M game Oct. 9 was second with 8.334 million.

People are watching in droves. Nine games have drawn in more than 6 million viewers, according to Lewis. Last year, only one game had drawn that many eyeballs by this point in the season.

Putting Texas in the 11 a.m. slot — or the “noon window,” as TV folks on the East Coast call it — is actually a good business decision. 

There’s a certain calculus that goes into TV programming. It’s an art form, really. The Longhorns have been a remarkable television draw ever since transistors came along. But their current 4-3 record isn’t ideal. An average team matched against opponents that aren’t as popular on TV is a bad combination. No offense, Texas Tech. Same for you, TCU.

Texas games draw fans of all ages to Royal-Memorial Stadium, and 11 a.m. kickoffs give families the chance to attend without worrying about their children staying up late.

“To start with, noon (Eastern) is a time slot that the networks have determined to be really useful,” Lewis said. “There’s a sense that 3:30 p.m. is pretty crowded. So between 8 p.m. and 3:30, then noon is kind of a good space to find good matchups.”

Sure enough, Texas has remarkable drawing power regardless of time slot. Six of the Horns’ seven games this season have landed in the top 10 each week no matter the opponent. The Rice game is thrown out since ESPN does not release Longhorn Network viewing data. The network is not rated by Nielsen.

Fox was the network that appointed the 11 a.m. Central time slot a big deal. The network now trumpets its “Big Noon Kickoff” coverage with a strong pregame show to rival ESPN’s "College GameDay." A quick glance at the stats reveals Fox’s “Big Noon” game is usually among the top three games of the week. For the network, it’s a blockbuster.

“Certainly as Fox goes, their decision to create their 'Big Noon' Saturday slot has been a huge success for them, a dramatic success,” Lewis said. “That and acquiring a big chunk of the Big Ten (TV package) have been very significant in making Fox a real player on the college football ratings scene.”

Just look at last week. Fox broadcast the Texas-Oklahoma State game in the 11 a.m. Central time slot. It drew 3.129 million viewers, good enough for the fifth-best overall watched game of the weekend. 

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The TCU-Oklahoma game on ABC, a primetime kickoff, was fourth with 3.434 million total viewers. The Kentucky-Georgia game was the highest-rated game of the weekend, getting a 3.65 rating with 6.369 million viewers.

If we’re talking about fan anger over the 11 a.m. kickoff, Texas fans have to get in line behind Oklahoma’s. Few teams have suffered through more early kickoffs than the Sooners in recent years. 

OU athletic director Joe Castiglione finally got fed up. He said the school was “bitterly disappointed” in the decision to play the Oklahoma-Nebraska game at 11 a.m. Sept. 18. The school wanted to make a full day of reviving the old Big Eight rivalry game.

Hey, Fox was happy. It was the third-most watched game of the week with 4.21 million viewers. 

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Now in response to Fox, ESPN must start looking for better games for the noon Eastern/11 a.m. Central slot. Oh, look, here’s Texas. The Horns were on ABC, an extension of the Disney/ESPN family, for three straight weeks. Millions turned in.

“I think ESPN before Fox did this already had a few good noon games every year,” Lewis said. “But I do think there has been some movement on ESPN’s part to be more competitive in that window.”

Everybody signed the current TV contract, Bowlsby said at Big 12 football media days in July. “But we're going to live by the stipulations of our television agreements, and that's what we did on this occasion,” the commissioner added.

Funny how one week later, the Sooners and Longhorns were bolting for the SEC.

Fans throw up the "Hook ’em, Horns" hand sign during the Texas-Oklahoma State game last Saturday. Many aren't happy with the early kickoffs, but the team's struggles have kept it out of prime time lately.

Obviously, the SEC move was well in the works behind the scenes. But it sure looked as if that Nebraska kickoff time was one final nail in the decision, at least on OU’s part.

“I think it’s good for the SEC,” Lewis said. “You need the marquee teams. You need stars. The SEC is a conference with a lot of stars. But it’s also a conference with Vanderbilt and Missouri. Any time you can get teams that are maybe not quite on the level of Alabama but not totally that far off, then maybe more the merrier.”

More 11 a.m. games are probably coming, considering UT’s upcoming schedule. The regular-season finale against Kansas State is already scheduled for an 11 a.m. start Nov. 26.

Still, Sarkisian believes the Horns are on the right track, no matter what times the games start. 

“I think we've got an exciting brand of football,” he said. “I think we see the glimpses of what this thing can look like and what it will look like moving forward. I think we’re very close, and I’m excited for what this future holds for us.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.

Next game

Texas at No. 20 Baylor, 11 a.m. Oct. 30, ABC, 104.9