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Birth of Pac-12 Networks may place academic strain on Cal volleyball

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Sports Editor

OCTOBER 28, 2013

Pac-12 volleyball teams used to have predictable conference schedules. The teams would play almost exclusively on Fridays and Saturdays each week. Teams would use weekdays for practice and weekends for matches, except in the case of an occasional weekday match. Rinse and repeat.

But in 2012, the conference unveiled the Pac-12 Networks, a group of television networks devoted to 24/7 coverage of Pac-12 athletics. Since the networks’ launch in August of last year, some of the conference’s athletic programs have faced changes to the way their matches are scheduled.

Few sports are more emblematic of these changes  than Pac-12 volleyball.

Due to the new emphasis on television times, Saturday matches fell from comprising more than 35 percent of Pac-12 matches to comprising less than 10 percent. Most of those matches have been moved to Sundays and, occasionally, Wednesdays, which together account for 42.5 percent of conference matches this season.

The impact of the new scheduling can be seen in Cal’s recent road trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on Washington and Washington State. The Bears left on a Tuesday so they could make a Wednesday-night matchup against the Huskies before traveling to Pullman for a Saturday match against the Cougars.

The Bears did not return to Berkeley until Sunday, after nearly six days away — four of which were school days.

“The Washington road trip this year was the longest we have ever been on the road in a Pac-12 or Pac-10 matchup in my 15 years,” said Cal volleyball coach Rich Feller. “That’s a lot for the middle of the school year.”

That time away from the classroom, especially during the midterm-heavy month of October, can put additional pressure on the team’s student athletes. Some players had midterms proctored in hotel rooms, while others had to make time for studying.

“We were missing a critical week of midterms,” Feller said.

The players, meanwhile, felt like they were up to the challenge of the long trip. Adrienne Gehan, Cal’s star outside hitter, has earned Pac-12 all-academic honors for the past two years and needed to have two exams proctored on the road. But she doesn’t feel like that limited her ability to do well.

“It’s a long time to be away, but we have so many people supporting us, including our professors, that it wasn’t the end of the world,” she said. “The most important thing is to stay on top of everything.”

The Bears have only one long road trip this season. Their other Wednesday matches either occur in Berkeley or don’t have an accompanying weekend match, so the team can return home immediately. But even Wednesday home matches can interfere with the team’s academics: Gehan estimates she misses one lecture per week due to volleyball, often due to Wednesday matches.

And the Bears are far from the only team affected by these weekday matchups. Teams such as Colorado, UCLA, Stanford, Washington and Oregon face awkward Wednesday-Saturday or Wednesday-Friday road trips in faraway markets this year.

The trade-off for the sometimes forgone academic work is an increase in exposure. Those Wednesday matches are there for a reason — they’re often the only thing on TV during that time slot. And without Saturday matches, the sport is competing less and less with football for attention.

“For the first time, I’ll have people stop me on the street and say, ‘You’re No. 5!’ ” Gehan said. “And I’ll turn on the Pac-12 (Networks) just for fun to see what’s on, and a lot of the time, it’s volleyball. It’s really, really cool to have that exposure, no matter who’s playing.”

But the lack of a consistent routine can interfere with the way the team prepares for matches. For example, Cal once had a simple weekly schedule: Sunday was the team’s day off, Monday was a light practice, on Tuesday the players watched film of the first opponent, on Wednesday film of the second opponent, on Thursday film of the first opponent again, and Friday and Saturday were matches. Now it is difficult for the team to establish a balanced routine, especially when it has to juggle an NCAA-mandated rest day each week.

“Having a full week to build into what you need to do, Friday-Saturday is probably preferable to only having one day or two days to build into what you need to do,” Feller said. “You are trying to peak at two completely separate times.”

Teams now often find themselves in a position in which they have a Sunday match and must immediately turn around to face a Wednesday match, making preparation difficult. The lines between each week of competition have become more and more blurred since the Pac-12 Networks affected scheduling.

Cal Athletics says it is monitoring situations such as this one, with Athletic Director Sandy Barbour saying the school must “continuously have a pulse” on what the Pac-12 is doing. In just its second year with Pac-12 Networks, Cal Athletics has yet to publicly voice any real concerns, but Barbour did not rule out the possibility of demanding change as the effects of the conference networks become better understood.

“Our participation as a member and what we individually or collectively demand from the conference (are ways we can change things),” Barbour said.

For Feller, the ideal would be a Friday-Sunday split, giving teams time to prepare throughout the week without having back-to-back matchups. Gehan, meanwhile, prefers the Friday-Saturday matches but says she has few complaints about the new system.

“I would rather have the exposure than the consistent schedule,” Gehan said. “But it does make it hard to focus on school the days that we do have games.”

After two years, the price for the increased exposure provided by the Pac-12 Networks is clear: a strain on academics and a sometimes awkward, inconsistent schedule. Whether that price is worth it depends on whom you ask.

Riley McAtee covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee

OCTOBER 28, 2013

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