To ESPN, UH Basketball Seems Little More than a TV Schedule Filler

Galen Robinson, Jr. (number 25, standing) looks on as guard Rob Gray (in crouch) makes a play.
Galen Robinson, Jr. (number 25, standing) looks on as guard Rob Gray (in crouch) makes a play. Jackson Gorman
The Houston Cougars lost 67-58 to the No. 22 Cincinnati Bearcats Saturday night in a game where the Bearcats took the lead 19 seconds in and the Cougars were never able to catch up.

The Hofheinz Pavilion crowd of 4,875 was likely disappointed not only by the result, but also by the fact that this just wasn’t a very good game. Neither team shot better than 39 percent from the floor, with the Cougars being destroyed by an inability to hit any shot from beyond the three-point line (making just three of 19 three-point attempts).

“We just never could make a key basket tonight at the right time, and they did,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “That’s the way basketball is. Sometimes it’s as simple as a make-or-miss game.”

The crowd was a surprisingly large one for the game. There was the late start of 8:00 p.m. on the same Saturday as a Texans home playoff game. Then there was the fact that it was a late start being played opposite another NFL playoff game. And that people bothered to show up in person on a night with relatively cold weather in Houston was further surprising.

A late-starting game on Saturday night used to be a rather rare occurrence at UH as games were scheduled in an attempt to get the largest crowd inside the arena. But that was the old days, when teams controlled their own schedules. Now UH’s game times are dictated by ESPN. And even the network is unconcerned with getting the largest viewing audience for these games. Rather, ESPN just wants to fill a programming hole on one of its several networks.

click to enlarge ESPN analyst Mark Wise (left) and play-by-play announcer Alex Faust (right) were actually in the building for Saturday night's UH game. - JACKSON GORMAN
ESPN analyst Mark Wise (left) and play-by-play announcer Alex Faust (right) were actually in the building for Saturday night's UH game.
Jackson Gorman
Houston and Cincinnati were relegated to ESPNU on Saturday night. Some conference games end up on ESPN News. Some get shipped off to the CBS Sports Network as part of a sub-licensing agreement with ESPN and the conference. Lots of UH’s non-conference games are broadcast on the ESPN 3 streaming service.

Often, much to the irritation of any fans who might be watching the games on television, and much to the consternation of the coaches and players playing in the actual game, ESPN attempts to save money by not even sending announcers to the game, instead having them call the game from studios in Bristol, Connecticut, while watching the game on television monitors (ESPN’s announcers were actually at Hofheinz on Saturday, seeing as how the Cougars were hosting a ranked team. And ESPN did send a play-by-play and color man to UH's matchup with Harvard).

The American Conference's TV deal with ESPN runs through the end of the 2019-2020 college sports season. So there’s not really much that can be done about how ESPN handles the broadcasts. The late and odd starting times are not ideal for Houston (UH still has to host conference games at 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. this season) as fans are constantly confused about starting times, and the midweek games cause fans to either stay up late or get caught in the massive Gulf Freeway rush hour traffic jams. And if ESPN is not going to bother to send announcers to most of the games, why should fans bother to show up?

ESPN states that only about 2 percent of the events that it broadcasts are done so remotely. It often seems, however, as if that 2 percent consists of nothing but Houston basketball games. The conference and UH should be bothered by how its TV partner treats the school. The Cougars and the fans watching the games deserve broadcasters at every game, and the Cougars and fans deserve games that start at times that are convenient for the central time zone and not just times that fill a programming hole for the East Coast.

The Cougars' next home game is Thursday, January 19 versus Memphis. The game is scheduled for an 8 o'clock tipoff on the CBS Sports Network. The good news is that means announcers should actually be in the arena.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal