To be fair, Bill Walton wasn't really trying to make a point about poor attendance. The former UCLA and NBA star was needling UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland during Thursday's nationally televised game against Washington, criticism the player-turned-analyst has leveled with some consistency during recent telecasts.
Still, there was something galling about Walton pointing out that the arena was half-empty, when one reason that was probably true -- especially near tip-off time -- was because the game started at 6 p.m. PT to accommodate ESPN's schedule.
As I wrote previously in a piece for Foxsports.com, the start times for sporting events are almost as secretive now as the College of Cardinals. When I received my UCLA season basketball tickets, many of the games were "TBD," being so kind as to let me know the day, without any hint regarding the time. The situation in football is even worse.
The reason for that, obviously, is television, and the way sports leagues dance to the networks' tune -- especially a powerhouse like ESPN -- by letting them pick and choose which games they want, and when. As a consequence, several UCLA games this year played during the week have started at 9 p.m. -- a little late for some folks on a school night -- and others, like Washington, at 6.
Now, if you're living in a town with population of 40,000, that's less of an issue. But if you can afford the steep freight for UCLA basketball tickets, you probably have a day job, and getting anywhere in Los Angeles by 6 p.m. is not always that easy.
While I wouldn't expect Walton -- who, again, had a clear objective in citing the lousy turnout -- to put such matters in context, it is irritating to realize paying fans for sporting events are essentially hostages to TV's schedule, as opposed to being able to plan a Saturday, God forbid, more than eight days in advance.
Quoting from my earlier column:
The real issue, though, boils down to not knowing when a game you’re planning to attend is going to start. Beyond sports, in fact, it’s hard to think of another form of entertainment where you’re asked to block out an entire day when purchasing tickets.
Oh, you want to see the new comedy “Dinner for Schmucks”? Sure, it’ll be this weekend, just plan on being available for the noon, 3, 6 or 9 p.m. showings.
Not that griping about it will change anything. But for somebody on ESPN to bitch about a late-arriving or small crowd for what amounts to a Thursday matinee? Now that takes some real balls.