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What’s with all the day games? Why Kyle Whittingham sees it as a positive for Utah

Here’s why Utah is playing a lot of day games this season, and why the Utes coach sees it as a positive for the program

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The Utah Utes play against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

The Utah Utes play against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. The Utes have another day game on the docket Saturday at No. 5 Washington.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Every week, usually on Monday morning, the game time comes out for the following week’s Utah football game.

College football fans wait every Monday to learn exactly what time their favorite team will be playing in about 12 days. Sometimes it’s even less than that — Utah has had its next two games, at Washington and at Arizona, selected for “six-day holds,” meaning the game time will be announced no later than the Sunday before the matchup.

Utah-Washington TV

Utes on the air

No. 18 Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12)
at No. 5 Washington (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST
Husky Stadium
TV: Fox
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Pretty much nowhere else in American sports are game times unknown when you purchase tickets during the season. Nearly all of the game times for college basketball, NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS are revealed at the beginning of the season.

Prior to joining the Pac-12, and even in some years as members of the conference, Utah has played a healthy amount of games during daylight hours. But a lot of the school’s memorable moments have come under the lights during “Pac-12 After Dark.”

This season, Utah has had a ton of day games, especially at home, which has been a positive for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

Whittingham has long been a proponent of earlier start times so players and coaches don’t have to sit around all day waiting for kickoff, but even though he acknowledged that night games at Rice-Eccles Stadium are special, he prefers day games.

The only time the lights have been in full effect at Rice-Eccles Stadium this season was for the opener vs. Florida, which kicked off at 6 p.m. MDT. Since then, no Utah home game has started later than 1:30 p.m. MT, with the time for the regular-season finale against Colorado on Nov. 25 still to be decided.

The early starts have led to some displeasure on social media from a segment of the fanbase.

Reasons for disliking afternoon games vary, from conflicts with kids’ sports (often played on Saturday morning and afternoon) to reduced tailgating time, to the opinion that the atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium is just better at night.

Recently, on Oct. 23, when Utah football’s social media account posted the game time for Utah’s noon MDT game vs. Arizona State on Nov. 4, it captioned the post with a shrugging emoji and an emoji with a bead of sweat rolling down it, seemingly anticipating the reaction from the fanbase.

As an aside, for those of you into jinxes, the Utah-Arizona State game seemed to have all of the harbingers of Utah football’s ghosts past. Utah’s team captains, which select the uniform combination for each game, had seemingly been waiting for a night game at home to break out the annual all-black uniforms, but with another day game approaching, they were done waiting.

Saturday’s game was a day blackout game, combined with the Salute America game, the same combination as the infamous 2010 TCU loss. Since that fateful day, Utah has reserved the blackout game for night games only. Of course, Utah defeated Arizona State 55-3 because uniforms don’t have any impact on the game.

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan addressed the game-time conundrum on social media on Oct. 16.

“Seems to me there are more day TV windows out west this year. My guess it’s a direct result of Pac-12 success this year. We don’t control, it’s all the networks that draft and set the game times. Day, night, whenever … just need our fans always!!!” Harlan wrote.

As Harlan points out, the university has no control in setting game times — that control has long been signed away in TV rights deals.

A couple weeks ahead of time, TV networks draft each Pac-12 game. The order of which network (Fox and ESPN each have media rights deals with the league) has the No. 1 pick changes week to week, but the process is the same. Some weeks, ESPN has the top pick, then Fox picks No. 2 and so on.

Utah TV ratings

2023 Utah football TV ratings by game (Data via sportsmediawatch.com).

Note: Pac-12 Network games are not measured in Nielsen ratings

Aug. 31: No. 14 Utah 24, Florida 11 (ESPN) — average of 3.19 million viewers.

Sept. 9: No. 12 Utah 20, Baylor 13 (ESPN) — average of 1.31 million viewers.

Sept. 23: No. 11 Utah 14, No. 22 UCLA 7 (Fox) — average of 1.32 million viewers.

Sept. 29: No. 19 Oregon State 21, No. 10 Utah 7 (FS1) — average of 1.28 million viewers.

Oct. 21: No. 14 Utah 34, No. 18 USC 32 (Fox) — average of 3.32 million viewers.

Oct. 28: No. 8 Oregon 35, No. 13 Utah 6 (Fox) — average of 2.81 million viewers.

The reasoning here is pretty simple — waiting a few weeks before game time for the networks to choose which contest to broadcast ensures Fox or ESPN get the best matchups in the best time slots, maximizing exposure for the universities and ratings for the networks.

Fans attending the game in person are collateral damage, since TV revenue brings in the majority of the revenue for the conference.

But no matter when the games have been played, Utah fans have showed up. Rice-Eccles Stadium has been sold out for every game, continuing its 82-game sellout streak, and has been loud and engaged. Sure, the sellout streak is based on tickets distributed, and there’s instances where there’s a late-arriving crowd, but the stadium fills in.

There’s multiple factors that have led to the influx of daylight games for Utah, as Harlan said. One, the team is doing well, sitting at 7-2 overall. The Pac-12, in its last season of existence, has been intriguing, with lots of teams ranked in the top 25 and exciting quarterback play.

Utah started its Pac-12 slate at home against UCLA, a 1:30 p.m. MDT kickoff on Fox. Its matchups at then No.-18 USC (6 p.m. MDT) and at home against then-No. 8 Oregon (1:30 p.m. MDT), were also assigned prime slots on Fox network television. The game at No. 5 Washington this Saturday is no different, another prime viewing window at 1:30 p.m. MST on Fox.

In all, that’s four Utah games on over-the-air television so far in the regular season, which matches a high water mark for the program, set in 2015.

Two games at Rice-Eccles Stadium vs. Cal and Arizona State, both Utah blowouts, were skipped over by Fox and ESPN, which led to 1 p.m. and noon MDT broadcasts on Pac-12 Network. After broadcasting the Utah game in the early slot, the Pac-12 Network aired Arizona at Washington State in the late window on Oct. 14 and Cal at Oregon and Stanford at Washington State in the later time slots on Nov. 4.

The national exposure is only a good thing for Utah, which is 4-1 on Fox and the main ESPN channel this season, especially when it comes to recruiting.

“Anytime you can get national exposure and build your brand ... our recruits have certainly taken note of that and are excited about the exposure we’ve gotten,” Whittingham said. “Now, it’s a two-edged sword. You got to be on national TV and play well, you don’t want to go ahead and just underperform every week. But we’ve performed pretty darn good this year in most weeks and that has caught the attention of our recruits and that’s been a plus.”


Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches from the sidelines during game against Arizona State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. The Utah coach admits night games at Rice-Eccles Stadium are special, but says he prefers playing in the light of day.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News