Editor’s note: This is part three in a series on BYU's relationship with ESPN. Part one covers benefits BYU and ESPN gain from their contract while part two discusses the nature of the programming and game-day productions. In preparation for this series, Ryan Teeples was an on-site observer of the game-day broadcast process.
Sports fans have it good these days.
As the DVR continues to make advertising less effective on recorded programming, live-action sports is growing in value as a product that holds viewers through commercial breaks. The result is more sports on TV and more lucrative contracts for those who own the product.
This has led to investments in making the sports product even more attractive to viewers. Combine in-game improvements with dramatic advances in HD television image quality, and American spectators have a fantastic landscape for watching sports.
BYU fans, in particular, brought their sports-minded eyeballs to the screen in attractive enough numbers to the point that ESPN signed an exclusive agreement for the rights to the school’s home broadcasts.
Since that relationship was consummated in 2010, the nature of the deal and the details involved affect the product the fans see on the ESPN in profound ways.
How does ESPN decide on which network to show BYU home games? Why do ESPN and BYU delay the announcement of channel selection and start time until close to game day?
Determining which games ESPN puts on which of its networks is a complicated process of juggling contractual obligations, time zones, start times, matchups and team popularity, among other things.
It’s important to first note that according to the contract with BYU, ESPN networks will air at least five home games per season. At least three of those will be on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. The rest may go on ESPNU.
Additionally, the network can — and frequently does — keep the start time of some games undecided for up to six days before the game. The same goes for the network on which the game will be shown. While ESPN has never imposed a one-week window on BYU, it has often used 12-day windows before releasing broadcast details.
ESPN uses tight, delayed start times so the network has a chance to see how teams perform in prior weeks, as those results — and any subsequent top-25 rankings — impact viewer interest.
"We’re managing a slew of contracts with all of our partners, and none are the same,” Kurt Dargis, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, told the Times-Union. “There are nuances to each of them. Some we can do whatever we want with as far as start times go. Others we have to pre-create them when the season begins with appearance maximums and minimums."
However, ESPN has similar contractual obligations to the conferences whose rights it owns, so it’s not as simple as putting the best team or best matchup on the best network. Often it’s a balancing act of meeting those obligations while trying to maximize audience.
If the network knows a team has a consistent following and audience, it may relegate it to a lesser network because it knows even without casual viewers, the game will draw a solid rating just from fan interest.
However, it doesn’t always turn out nice and clean. This week, Florida at Missouri, a matchup of ranked teams, will be relegated to ESPN3 and SECtv, a regional network, while other less-prominent games are on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.
How is viewership and exposure affected by the ESPN channel that broadcasts a game?
Many networks like to tout the number of homes in which they are available as the primary metric for exposure, but that number is only one factor among many for what drives viewership of a game.
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