Sports

John McGrath: What’s great for the wallet and TV is not good for college football fans or the Apple Cup

Chris Petersen’s regularly scheduled Monday meeting with the media began with the Washington Huskies coach taking two questions regarding the Apple Cup.

Petersen tolerated the first one, noting that he’s “excited ... no question about it” to face Washington State in the season finale.

He put the follow-up on hold.

“Does anyone not have any questions about the game?” asked Petersen, referring to his team’s 37-13 defeat of Oregon State. “We finally do something good, and we’re moving on to the next game?”

Petersen’s wish to break down the victory over the Beavers before assessing the Cougars was both understandable and consistent with the protocol of a college coach’s weekly press conference. But the tone of irritation in his voice suggested the Apple Cup is no more important to him than any other game.

If that’s the case — and I’m not sure it is — Petersen has plenty of company. The Apple Cup annually generates a pregame buzz. There’s a buzz this year, too, except it’s spelled “buzz-z-z-z.”

The absence of anticipation can be linked to the Seattle Seahawks. When the defending Super Bowl champions are preparing for their version of a rivalry rematch against the San Francisco 49ers — a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving night, no less — the Hawks are going to dominate the Huskies and Cougars in any discussion about football.

Factor in the middle-of-the-week sideshow staged by Richard Sherman and the cardboard cutout of Doug Baldwin, and it’s a wonder anybody still remembers the fact a rivalry will resume Saturday night in Pullman.

Those last four words are worth repeating once more, with feeling: Saturday night in Pullman.

A Saturday night Apple Cup in Pullman may not the worst idea in the history of Western Civilization, but as the late Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips said when ranking Earl Campbell’s place among all-time great running backs: “I don’t know if he’s in a class by himself, but I do know that when that class gets together, it sure don’t take long to call the roll.”

What’s so wrong about a Martin Stadium kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.? Let’s start at the end: By the time Cougars quarterback Luke Falk throws the last of his 70 passes, it will be past 11.

Because there are few motel rooms in Pullman, and because those rooms typically require a two-night stay that costs more than a penthouse suite at the Bellagio, Apple Cup fans seeking lodging elsewhere are prone to drive many miles. If the weather conditions aren’t severe, the drive is doable in the early evening. At midnight? The drive is dangerous, regardless of the weather.

Speaking of the weather: It’s cold this time of year in Pullman, especially cold after sunset, and nothing will be colder in Pullman than the thousands of empty seats at Martin Stadium.

The idea behind a 7:30 p.m. kickoff for the Apple Cup wasn’t conceived by university administrators who put their impressive brainpower together months ago. The 7:30 kickoff was the result of a decision, announced Nov. 17, to televise the game on Fox Sports 1.

When Fox and ESPN agreed to a landmark contract that assured each Pac-12 Conference school would pull in $21 million per year through 2024, it was seen as a win-win deal for the conference: A pipeline of cash, TV exposure across the country, what could go wrong?

The Apple Cup has gone wrong. Its dates and times are at the whim of the television networks that bought the right to dictate dates and times.

Two years ago, the Apple Cup was rescheduled for the Friday after Thanksgiving in Pullman.

Cougars fans asked: “Seriously?”

Huskies fans asked: “Seriously?”

The scene at Martin Stadium for the 2012 Apple Cup, thanks to WSU’s stunning fourth-quarter comeback, exceeded expectations, and Husky Stadium rocked in return last season.

This newfangled Black Friday date for the Apple Cup just might work out, I thought. A rivalry that began in 1900 appeared reinvigorated.

Turns out the Apple Cup was just another movable piece for a TV schedule built for a last-minute flexibility that caters to the conference’s network partners, but inconveniences fans trying to make plans. Friday afternoon one year, Saturday night the next, the Apple Cup goes where it’s told.

“They hate us, and we hate them,” Huskies receiver Jaydon Mickens recently said of the Cougars, doing what he could to sustain the rhetoric of an intrastate rivalry that’s basically become a uniform-scheme clash determined by football players from California.

“It’s the way God wanted it,” Mickens added.

Perhaps, but I doubt God was consulted about a 7:30 p.m. starting time in Pullman, kicking off a Saturday night game that figures to find the Apple Cup trophy presentation taking place in the wee small hours of Sunday morning.

Then again, God probably wants nothing to do with any rivalry associated with an apple.

It is, after all, a sore subject.

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