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Why does USC have a game Super Bowl morning? Hint: TV contracts

Why is USC hosting a basketball game on the morning before the Super Bowl? Hint: it's about TV contracts

For much of the U.S., the hours leading up to the Super Bowl are a time for preparation. Wings are glazed, chores completed, digestive systems cleansed. 

There is much to do, and with the Super Bowl creeping ever longer, and the pregame shows ever earlier, many reserve Sunday morning and early afternoon for the essentials.

For some, it’s not the best day to attend a basketball game, yet each year leagues schedule games in the hours before kickoff. Last year, for instance, the UCLA played at Oregon State. This Sunday, USC will host No. 11 Utah at Galen Center, and the Lakers will travel to play the New York Knicks.

And every year, some fans ask: Can’t we do this some other day?

As it turns out, not feasibly. The web of television contracts and travel time means some leagues have no choice but to air games before the Super Bowl.

In the Pac-12, the conference sets a generic schedule every June, with games on Thursdays and Saturdays only. But there is one major constraint: Every conference game must be televised.

The conference sends the Thursday-Saturday model to the television networks, which select games to fit into their own programming schedules. That means some games are shifted to Wednesdays or Sundays. When all the slots are filled -- a process that takes about three months of tinkering -- the schedule is sent to the conference’s athletic directors for final approval. 

“It’s not easy,” the Pac-12's vice president of communications, Dave Hirsch, said. “Especially when every game is televised.” 

There are also travel considerations to account for. This Sunday, for example, Washington will host California. That was the only day possible, Hirsch said, because Cal played Thursday and teams must get two days for travel.

It can get complicated, and the result can sometimes be less than ideal for fans who want to attend the game. In Los Angeles, said USC associate athletic director Steve Lopes, early starts create traffic problems, and late starts can be hard to fill seats for. But those times allow the networks to fit in two games in a night.

“If TV weren’t part of the conversation, you’d probably start the game at 7, 7:30 and keep everybody happy,” Lopes said.

Sometimes, Super Bowl Sunday can still be a big draw. Oregon State beat its average attendance last season when hosting UCLA. At Michigan State, which will host Michigan on Sunday in one of its biggest home games of the season, the game is sold out, with standing room only for media.

And the games aren’t just for basketball — NHL also schedules a slate of games on Super Bowl Sunday.

But at USC, where attendance is already down for men’s games, the scheduling conflict is another obstacle to fuller crowds.

In the past two years, the USC women’s basketball team has hosted games on Super Bowl Sunday. At each the attendance was less than half the season average. Two years ago, only 249 people attended.

Twitter: @zhelfand

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