The Tragedy of Big Sporting Events Starting at 9PM ET

The picture above is from the seventh game of the 1992 National League Championship Series.  With Atlanta down 2–1 and the bases loaded, the Braves’ Francisco Cabrera hit a two-run single that scored David Justice and Sid Bream. Bream was one of the slowest players on the Braves, but beat the throw by Pirates left fielder Barry Bonds and slid to score the Series-winning run.  if you look closely you can see me with my hands up in the air celebrating behind Jimmy and Roselyn Carter.  It was an amazing moment even for me as a mild fan of sports.

The next day my former boss and friend Don Ohlmeyer call me.  Don was a major sports producer, he ran NBC Sports, was a co-owner of ESPN, and proceeded me as President of NBC West Coast.  His point of the call was to tell me that game was one of the most exciting baseball moments he had ever seen.  But because the game started at 9PM ET, to maximize the TV audience, that play occurred after midnight ET, I believe it was almost 1245AM.  Which meant many kids and adults were asleep and missed this great moment.

The later start may have given Major League Baseball higher viewing levels, but they lost an opportunity to give a new generation of baseball fans and existing adult fans an amazing memory that could have emotionally linked them to baseball.  Love of sport generally comes from great memories.   How many responsible parents would let their kids stay up to watch a baseball game past midnight?  Just last month Steph Curry’s amazing and record setting 17 points in overtime aired after 1AM ET, so many kids and adults missed this breathtaking 5 minutes.

TV viewing is really habitual.  The highest viewing levels up upscale 18-49 year old adults (one of the most valuable advertising audiences) peaks at 900.  8PM would be the optimal start time but that would be 5PM Pacific Time.  So to split the difference 9PM Eastern Time is when most weekend sports start.  People who move from the west coast to the east coast are always amazed how late Monday Night Football games start.  And if you move from the east coast to the west coast you are amazed how early Monday Night Football games start.

It was not always like this.  When I was a growing up all World Series games were in during the day.  Why? Because most stadiums did not have lights bright enough to light stadiums for TV. TV revenue was not meaningful enough to justify paying for lighting.  And pre ESPN and regional sports networks there were not enough TV channel slots to show games to justify installing lights.  When i worked at Turner in the early 80s we were only able to broadcast night college football games because a portable lighting system was invented.  But once lighting became ubiquitous so did prime time sports.

Live versus Sportscenter.  So you might say “who cares i could watch the highlights on Sportscenter.”  True but its not the same.  Life is about communal experiences.  Sharing live sports experience create memories for fathers and sons, between friends and amongst families.   More important its how a love for a sport is developed.  There is nothing like the mounting tension of watching a game live.  It does not take a minute to get the result.  Its a slowly mounting roller coaster of tension and happiness that is rarely found in any other life experience.  You cannot recreate being in the moment.  Its truly the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.