Dick Harmon: Independence could be BYU's best option

Published: Friday, July 30 2010 10:33 p.m. MDT

Is BYU going independent?

That's a hot topic folks seem to want to debate this summer in the wake of conference expansion and the arms race among conferences.

Fact is, BCS leagues are gunning for more coin, and indications from the SEC and Big 12 are that they'll see significantly more money from TV deals. Utah and the Pac-10 are hoping for a piece of that windfall, optimistically believing checks will increase from about $10 million per school to around $18 million.

The Mountain West Conference's TV deal is about $1.5 million per school. The MWC hasn't publicly shown a viable plan that's going to double or even up its kitty by 25 percent in years to come.

What's BYU to do? It has a product. It has equity built in a solid football reputation and competes nationally in most of 20 or so sports. It also has some features, like a built-in network and TV facilities, that are very attractive and have never been fully tapped.

So, what's up? I don't think it is an absolute that BYU is thinking of going independent. I do think it is an option that is being heavily explored, along with other things such as sticking in the MWC and trying to gain automatic qualifying status. I believe BYU is in a "discovery" stage to see what makes sense and is realistic, then its administrators will go talk to MWC partners or potential different partners and make something work before going independent.

BYU needs to find some answers from the Big 12, the MWC and ESPN. Once they complete plain and simple talk based on facts, BYU should act.

When BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe spoke to the media earlier this month, it was a public-relations move to let fans and the media know BYU's administration was not sitting on its collective hands through expansion talks.

What Holmoe didn't specifically outline is all his "research" and "discovery" of BYU options and what BYU will do. He did hint at a few "assets" the university possesses that could prove valuable.

What are some of these assets?

A state-of-the-art, high-definition TV studio near completion east of the Marriott Center on campus, one that will rival anything the networks have in media centers in Los Angeles and New York.

A high-definition TV truck for production and broadcast of sporting events. This truck is the most up-to-date found anywhere in the western United States and a tool ESPN would love to rent for events centered in the West.

BYU-TV, an up-and-operating station that is available on the basic entry platform of DirecTV and Dish Network and some 200 cable companies worldwide. In the U.S. alone, this represents exposure to 60 million households and an estimated 40 million more in countries in South America. BYU-TV programming has been popular to the cable and dish companies because of its demand and low cost. At present, according to BYU-TV's mission statement, it is a non-commercial, nonprofit TV station, but it does accept sponsorships and contributions.

At present, BYU-TV programming follows a PBS-type format similar to KBYU-TV, only BYU-TV is not a PBS station. BYU-TV does have the ability to split its signal for live programming and aired 60 live sporting events this past year, including NCAA-sanctioned sports, club sports and rugby and women's soccer in HD.

The split signal gives BYU-TV the ability to explore a commercial broadcast aside from PBS-type underwriting. The university is researching legal and licensing issues related to accepting commercial programming.

As shown by the BYU-Oklahoma game in Cowboy Stadium last fall, ESPN is a willing partner in negotiating multimillion-dollar games with BYU for football games outside the Comcast/The mtn. contract held by the MWC for home games. And it doesn't take a brain surgeon to envision BYU/ESPN working on four or five similar games during a season.

BYU has already taken advantage of a loophole in the MWC television contract with Comcast and its partners in basketball.

This surfaced when the Cougars play games in the EnergySolutions Arena and stage those two-game preseason events in Las Vegas, where BYU-TV can roll its HD truck. BYU has only to hire a five- to 10-man sales staff to make it a commercial enterprise. Right now, it is primarily for exposure.

Texas has told the Big 12 it wants to create its own TV network, work within the umbrella of the league's contract and get a piece of its own pie on the side.

I am told this Texas dream for an independent network is years behind what BYU has already created and has available at the push of a button and hiring a staff of salespeople for commercials.

It could take Texas almost a decade to reach the audience that BYU can deliver immediately. Some believe Texas, with all its power and influence, may never land on the basic satellite platform of DirecTV and Dish Network that BYU currently enjoys because any new network would certainly be added to a premium sports tier to nick subscribers and make it financially viable.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand what BYU is capable of doing if it wants to, and to what parties it can make a pitch.

How or what BYU does with all this is a matter of conjecture.

The MWC's current TV contract can absorb a defection by Utah or an addition of Boise State and Fresno State. But I've been told if the fundamental identity of the MWC changes as a TV property (and losing BYU and Utah would do that), Comcast could have grounds to pull the plug.

So BYU does have some bargaining power if it chooses to play a card or two and request some considerations in light of Utah's departure.

Taking an inventory of BYU assets and deciding how strong it wants to be with its current partners is something BYU's administrators must do.

If they don't, they'd be fools.

Holmoe has been smart in the fact that he's basically shut his mouth on expansion. Only twice this spring and summer (once to a Tennessee newspaper and this month's local press conference) has he spoken of the issue, refusing all other interviews. BYU is not in a position to demand inclusion in any other league because of its unique religious quirks that some don't like, such as no Sunday play.

For him to leak stuff would be counterproductive and harmful, and he's wise to be quiet and just do his job behind the scenes.

He once told me, "You don't just call up Augusta National and tell them you want to become a member. It doesn't work that way."

But in this summer of moves, and lack thereof, in the expansion circus, remember Holmoe's words about expansion and no invitation so far to leave the MWC.

"BYU's been working on this for three years. We're in an unusual position of being in the middle of things, but not on the internal area of things," he said.

"Instead of being acted upon, we wanted to be proactive. On the other hand, we're not Notre Dame. We can't make demands, and we don't have multiple invitations. So we try to make the best of this jigsaw puzzle and position ourselves now and for the future."

Read behind the lines.

Independence?

Nothing's off the table, but going independent might be the nuclear option.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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