Ryan Teeples: For BYU, a painful TV past has led to a continually fruitful ESPN relationship

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15 2013 9:55 a.m. MDT

ESPN V.P. of Programming Dave Brown speaks at a press conference at BYU where BYU officials announced going independent in football and joining the WCC for other sports as well as their contract with ESPN. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

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Editor’s note: This is a three-part series on the nature of BYU's relationship with ESPN. Part two discusses the nature of the relationship relative to programming and game-day productions, and part three enumerates must-know facts about BYU and ESPN.

For BYU fans, this football season may feel like déjà vu. In 2006, Bronco Mendenhall — with Robert Anae at his side — led a Cougar team through a slow 2-2 start to an impressive 11-win season.

No doubt fans would love to see a duplication of those on-field results this season. But there’s something haunting about the 2006 season nobody in Cougar Nation wants to see repeated this year, or ever again: television obscurity.

While Pac-12 fans are partially living (or reliving) that nightmare this year, BYU is basking in the glow of legitimate national television coverage every game of the season.

Recalling a painful past relationship

At risk of stirring painful echoes of the past, it’s useful to recall the rocky history and subsequent breakup between BYU and the Mountain West Conference’s TV deal.

In 2004, the MWC was up for TV contract negotiations and sought a bigger payout than its historical precedent. The bar was set by a yet-to-be-hatched network called CSTV at $82 million, which was more than double what the conference was making under its ESPN deal at the time.

ESPN refused to match the number, while also making some demands the conference wasn’t willing to acquiesce to, such as Wednesday night games, so the conference and network parted ways. MWC members were optimistic about CSTV’s prospects and ESPN stood ready to capitalize on Boise State and the WAC on Friday nights.

Before a game could even be played under the new agreement, in 2005 CBS acquired CSTV and optimism ran high for fans and schools believing major network backing would only make this thing more viable.

But the relationship between the Mountain West and CSTV peaked faster than a "Bachelorette" matchup.

In the summer of 2006, CSTV and Comcast banded together to form the now defunct MountainWest Sports Network and nicknamed it The mtn. While CSTV had some national carriage on major TV platforms, The mtn. started with none, save Comcast, which held interest in the rights. From there a bloody TV distribution battle ensued, with fans — particularly those in the MWC’s core market of Salt Lake City — getting battered in the dispute.

The problem wasn’t just that fans couldn’t get access to games on satellite providers. There was also the fact that the games that were expected to be shown on a national network were now relegated to an amateurish regional network nobody outside the conference watched, even if they got it.

And throughout the contract negotiations, BYU was made promises it would have rebroadcast rights and could carry games not picked up on The mtn. Neither came to fruition.

At some point in 2010, BYU decided it couldn’t take any more of the Mountain West Conference’s TV deal debacle and departed the conference to the hisses of its fellow members and inked its own lucrative deal with ESPN. Armed with a national following and its own TV network, it took its ball and went home.

That painful relationship behind it, BYU has focused its energy on developing a relationship with ESPN, which has become a partnership that greatly benefits both sides.

BYU and ESPN: A match made in Bristol

BYU couldn’t have made a jump to football independence with as rapid success as it has without the backing of the ubiquitous leader in sports programming.

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