Gators can't beat the heat
Published: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 11:51 p.m.
When the Southeastern Conference unveiled its week one 2013 football season start times, the collective groan from Gator Nation was heard from Key West to Pensacola.
For the fourth time in the last six years, Florida was stuck with an afternoon kickoff for its season opener. This Saturday's 12:21 p.m. start time against Toledo at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will force fans to again stock up on sunblock and bottled water.
The burning question is why? Why would the SEC schedule an early-afternoon game for its southernmost member during a month when the average heat index (which measures heat and humidity) is at its highest point of the year?
The answer lies in television, and some factors beyond the SEC's control. Nonetheless, Florida administrators aren't happy about the prospect of another sweltering Saturday opener. They consider it a fan safety issue. In 2011, when Florida began the season against Florida Atlantic (7 p.m. kickoff), only six fans were treated by medical staff for heat-related problems. Last season, when Florida opened against Bowling Green (3:30 p.m.), 105 fans were treated for heat-related issues.
Florida associate athletic director Mike Hill said the school has had positive conversations with the SEC in recent weeks about balancing fan safety and comfort with optimal TV time slots. In five of the past six years, the Gators have had early afternoon kickoffs in early September (Florida faced Troy at 12:21 p.m in the second week of the 2009 season). In 2010, Florida had back-to-back early kickoffs against Miami of Ohio (noon) and USF (12:21 p.m.)
“The heat has to be considered,” Hill said. “We all get it. There are 14 teams in this league. We're all in the Southeast, so it's hot in August and September.
“But the Gators have three of the last six openers between 12 and 12:30 and another one was at 3:30, so we've only had two night kickoffs to open the season in the last six years and that's what has to be considered at Florida. The conference has been very receptive to that concern that we've expressed.”
SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack, who oversees league football scheduling, is aware of UF's concerns. When the SEC signed 15-year TV deals with ESPN and CBS worth a combined $3 billion, it brought in unprecedented revenue to the league and its members. But it also created TV windows that need to be filled.
“We will try to work with our TV partners in the future to balance that out as much as possible,” Womack said. “The heat and humidity throughout the Southeast, it's something that we look into.”
But Womack said there are a number of variables that go into scheduling start times for football games. Florida's season opener landed on the SEC Network, which produces games for TV affiliates throughout the Southeast Region (the SEC Network will become its own cable channel in 2014). There is no mandatory number of times a team can appear on the SEC Network, though the conference's goal is to have all 14 teams represented at some point throughout the season.
“There are certainly a number of issues to take into consideration, including the significance of the game, whether a game is SEC controlled and then trying to find the appropriate platform for that game to air on,” Womack said. “You also have to take into account the number of times they can get on the SEC Network, if it's the only opportunity, or if there are going to be other opportunities.”
CBS not starting its SEC football broadcasts until the third week of the season takes away an SEC-controlled 3:30 p.m. television window. Instead, Mississippi State at Oklahoma State landed in the week one 3:30 p.m. TV slot because it will air on ABC (regional coverage, ESPN2 for the rest of the nation) as a Big 12 controlled game.
At 7 p.m., Kentucky will play Western Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn., in a Sun Belt conference controlled game on ESPNU. A storyline will be the coaching debuts of Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Bobby Petrino at Western Kentucky. The SEC could have moved another northern matchup — Murray State and Missouri — from its 7 p.m. time slot to noon, but then would have pitted Florida and Toledo in direct ratings competition with Kentucky and Western Kentucky.
The SEC's expansion from 12 to 14 teams last season has made finding exclusive TV windows more tricky.
“The more games you have, the more challenges you are going to have,” Womack said.
A possible solution for Florida would be to open the season with a BCS conference opponent to ensure a prime-time worthy matchup. Florida has traditionally opened the season at home against mid-major opponents to shake off some early rust before the rough-and-tumble SEC schedule.
“There are no plans to change our strategy at this point because there are too many unknowns,” Hill said. “Will the conference go from an eight to a nine-game schedule? What sort of criteria will the selection committee use for the College Football Playoff?
“And the reality is, people gloss over this, we play Florida State every year. That is a bear of a non-conference game, and it just so happens it falls at the end of the season. If we opened the season with Florida State, people might have a different perception of who we are playing each year.”
To combat the potential oppressive heat, Florida has again put in place important safeguards for fans for Saturday's season opener. Misting stations will be located outside Gate 2, Gate 16, Gate 9 and the upper North end zone Sunshine Seats. Hand fans, sunscreen and cooling hand towels will be available pregame outside Gate 2 of the O'Connell Center, and any fans overcome by the heat with a ticket can enter Gate 1 of the O'Dome to cool off (videoboards inside the arena will broadcast the game). Bottled water will be available for a reduced price (12-ounce bottles for $2) at concession stands.
“When this trend began six years ago and the league first scheduled an early kick for our opener, we put together a plan in place to try to protect fans and provide them access to things to try to keep cool to deal with the heat,” Hill said. “In the end, your fans must protect themselves and take necessary precautions as they would if they go to the beach or anywhere else. You are dealing with Floridians so they are used to that heat. But sitting in that heat for three and four hours, you've got to be smart about it.”
While the game may be uncomfortable for fans, Florida players view playing a Toledo team north of the Mason-Dixon line as a potential advantage. The Gators have started practice off-and-on during the middle of the day throughout August to prepare for its opening two early kickoffs. Florida's second game of the season, an ACC-controlled game at rival Miami, also will start at noon.
“It could be a huge factor for us, because teams from up north like Toledo and Tennessee, they are not used to this kind of weather,” Florida sophomore offensive lineman Tyler Moore said. “It could be a humongous advantage for us.”