The anticipation of Arizona’s first-ever 8 p.m. home football game was such that the school marketed a doubleheader, capped by a midnight showing of the Marx Brothers’ “Monkey Business” at the downtown Opera House.
“The blazing bulbs will generate pep to pulverize opponents,” wrote the Star’s Chuck Kinter.
Every seat was full: a record 4,000 at Arizona Stadium and whatever the Opera House held in 1931.
Tucsonans termed it “after-supper” football, and it worked so well that the Wildcats routinely scheduled 8 p.m. starts for the next 40 years.
Nobody has the official statistics, not even the NCAA or the mighty Elias Sports Bureau, but it’s probable that Arizona has played more night games than anyone in the history of college football.
By 1970, Arizona moved most of its home kickoffs to 7:30 p.m. By the mid-’80s, athletic director Cedric Dempsey peeled them back to 6:30. Now, when all start times are dictated not by athletic directors but by TV programmers, Arizona has entered the Late Night With Larry Scott era.
“They’re a fundamental part of our new TV agreement and of high value to our broadcast partners,” the Pac-12 commissioner said last week.
You may call it Monkey Business.
Scott and the league’s shareholders, who split a $3.2 billion TV deal, call it Money Business.
UA fans are not well-positioned to whine about Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff against UCLA. For 35 years, they’ve shown equal indifference to games that start at 1:30, 3:30 or 5 o’clock. There’s always a reason not to go.
In the 238 non-ASU games played since Arizona Stadium was expanded in 1976, the Wildcats have sold out just 23 times.
There hasn’t been an excess of pep or pulverizing at the old stadium.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne quickly learned that the Wildcats routinely draw 48,000 at any time of the day/night, as they have since the mid-70s, but the final 8,000 to 10,000 “fence-sitters” are unpredictable.
Given the high stakes for Saturday’s game, given UCLA’s high profile and Arizona’s three-game winning streak — plus the lure of Homecoming and a terrific weather forecast — you might assume the late kickoff would not be a factor.
Isn’t a Big Game a Big Game? And how often has Arizona been involved in one of those the last 15 seasons?
But because modern college football games routinely require 3 hours and 30 minutes — that historic 1931 Arizona-San Diego State night game was played in roughly half the time as UA lost 8-0 — fans don’t get home in time to watch the Marx Brothers at midnight.
I suspect that’s as much a deterrent as ticket prices and the proliferation of choices, competing football games on so many cable channels. The market isn’t merely saturated, it’s overwhelmed. Those who have the Dish Network had the choice of 27 college football games last week.
Ever determined, UA’s Rich Rodriguez, a new coach with a new plan, chose not to admonish Wildcat fans for their wait-and-see approach (Arizona has averaged 48,161 at home in RichRod’s days). He chose a higher ground.
“I think we could create one of the best home environments in college football,” he said Monday. “We’ve got to do our part and win games, and the fans have to come out and cheer loudly and be part of it.
“But I truly think, when our fans are into the game, when our students are into the game — if we are having success and things go well, which they will over the next several seasons — we can truly create the best home environment in the Pac-12. By far.”
The number of fence-sitters hasn’t changed since Arizona’s long-ago admission to the Pac-10 even though the population of Pima County has more than doubled. That’s the most lingering conundrum of Arizona football.
The Wildcats averaged almost the same at home in 1982 (47,560) as they did in RichRod’s first season (47,931), even though every home start in 1982 was established for 7:30 p.m. before that season began.
So it can’t be start times. It’s the culture. There are so many Iowa and Ohio State and Michigan State fans among us. Arizona is often allegiance 1-A, or worse, to a significant number of Tucsonans.
The Late Night menu is more troublesome in most other Pac-12 other precincts. Arizona and ASU surely have the fewest commuter-type fans than the other markets. The Washington, Oregon and Bay Area schools rely on fans who drive a greater distance to the stadium. Traffic in Los Angeles is a mighty deterrent to UCLA and USC fans.
Most UA football players haven’t witnessed a capacity crowd at Arizona Stadium. One of the few who did, fifth-year senior receiver Terrence Miller, on Monday said “our stadium has been electric in the past; I expect that again this week.”
Miller last saw all the Arizona Stadium seats full on Sept. 24, 2011, against Oregon, which won 56-31. Since then, UA fans have left about 150,000 seats empty.
It’s too late? Too hot? Too expensive?
On Monday, Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright had a better perspective.
“Just play ball,” he said.