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Sometimes on Sundays: Move to Pac-12 will find Utah Utes playing more Sunday games

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 1:16 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — When the University of Utah competed in the Mountain West Conference, the basic guideline for sporting events was "never on Sunday," to accommodate fellow MWC member BYU's policy of not playing on Sunday.

Because the Cougars wouldn't play sporting events on Sunday, the league didn't schedule any conference tournaments that could be played on Sunday and held very few Sunday contests overall.

The Utes and other MWC schools did play a few games on Sunday — mostly women's soccer and baseball. Among the major sports, the only contests outside of NCAA Tournament games played on Sunday were an occasional Sunday game for TV purposes, such as Utah's 1998 basketball game against New Mexico at The Pit.

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However, Sunday games will now become more common for Utah as it competes in the Pac-12 Conference, which, like most conferences around the country, regularly holds sporting events on Sunday. And with its new lucrative TV contract, the Pac-12 could hold even more games on Sunday in the future, since television likes to dictate such matters.

It's no secret that Sunday games in Salt Lake City are a challenge because of the prevailing LDS Church culture. Most active LDS church members prefer not to attend sporting events on Sunday, and most Utah sports organizations try to avoid Sunday games.

More than two decades ago, the Utah Jazz arranged with the NBA not to have any regular-season home games scheduled on Sunday. Real Salt Lake doesn't schedule home games on Sunday, even though Major League Soccer teams will play a total of 34 games on Sunday this year. The Salt Lake Bees can't avoid Sunday games with an almost daily schedule that stretches from April to September.

Utah athletics director Chris Hill knows that his school will likely be playing more games on Sunday, even some at home, but he says his school can't be demanding, especially as a brand-new Pac-12 member.

"No, that's up to the conference," he said when asked if his school is concerned about being assigned Sunday contests. "We understand that it's difficult to play on Sunday for us. But we're part of the conference and we'll be full members and go from there."

Hill is well aware of the prevailing culture in Utah and knows attendance at Sunday games will generally be lower. The Utes have never scheduled men's basketball games on Sunday and have often moved starting times of football games on LDS Conference weekends so they don't conflict with conference sessions.

"The league may be sensitive to that, but we're not in a position to demand," Hill said. "We don't want to play a ton of games on Sunday, but I also want to make sure we send a message that we can play on Sundays and we have played on Sundays. It's clearly what the Pac-12 schedule turns out to be."

Hill is correct that the Pac-12 won't try to accommodate Utah when it comes to Sunday games.

When asked about that, Pac-12 Vice President Dave Hirsch replied, "No specific scheduling provisions were made with Utah, and it is treated like any other member of the conference."

That's the case in women's volleyball, which has scheduled 11 Sunday matches this year. Utah has just one of those matches and it is at home, on Oct. 2 against USC. In soccer, the Utes have four Sunday games with two at home. The gymnastics team has two Sunday meets, both on the road, at UCLA and Arizona State.

The conference released its men's and women's basketball schedules for the year, showing all Thursday and Saturday games. However, Hirsch said those schedules will be tweaked in late September or early October when television will make its selections for games to be played on other days of the week. Last season, nine men's games and 13 women's games were played on Sunday.

But Utah isn't the only school that might prefer not to have games on Sundays.

Last year when the Pac-10 increased the number of Sunday night men's basketball games from two to seven for TV purposes, a couple of league coaches objected.

"I don't think playing a Sunday night game helps much of anybody," Cal coach Mike Montgomery told the Seattle Times. "I think kids need rest, to do their laundry and study, all the stuff that kids do."

UCLA's Ben Howland isn't a fan of Sunday games either, as he told the Times, "The one day these kids actually have a chance to have off is Sunday."

While coaches like Montgomery and Howland like having Sundays off for their players, one advantage to Sunday play is less school time taken away from student-athletes, especially in the non-revenue sports.

If a team goes on the road for a Friday night-Sunday afternoon road trip, it means one less day away from class compared to a Thursday-Saturday trip. Same with conference tournaments starting later in the week and ending on a Sunday.

With BYU no longer in the conference, the MWC is changing several of its postseason tournaments for that very reason.

According to Javan Hedlund, associate commissioner for the MWC, next year's MWC tournaments will feature five events that will finish on Sunday, including men's and women's tennis, men's and women's golf and baseball.

Women's soccer games are traditionally played on Fridays and Sundays, which Utah has done for years in non-conference games. It will be no different in the Pac-12, where the Utes have four league games on Sunday, including two at home.

Baseball is the same, with most three-game sets scheduled for Friday through Sunday. This past season, the Utes had a pair of home games on Sunday as they've had most years in the MWC and WAC, and that won't change in the Pac-12. The Utah softball team hasn't played many Sunday league games, but will in the Pac-12 with a three-game weekend schedule like baseball.

There has been talk that some Saturday football games could be moved to Sunday, but most likely Utah and other schools won't have to worry about Sunday football games.

So what happens if the league decides to give Utah a Sunday home game or two, say for men's basketball or women's gymnastics?

"We'll have to fit the schedule," says Hill. "We aren't going to be treated any differently that anybody else."

Traditionally gymnastics meets have been held on Fridays at the Huntsman Center, and that should be able to continue since the league schedule is more flexible with only eight schools that field gymnastics teams and not every school competing against each other.

As far as Sunday men's basketball games go, the Utes may not have to worry about that until the team becomes more competitive. Last year, the schools with the most Sunday games were three of the better teams — Arizona, UCLA and Washington — with three apiece, while Oregon, which finished near the bottom, had no Sunday games.

Pac-12 games on Sunday

Baseball: 41*

Women's soccer: 24

Softball: 20*

Women's basketball: 13*

Volleyball: 11

Men's basketball: 9*

Gymnastics: 8

*Number for 2010-11. The 2011-12 schedules are not finalized.

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