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.
While Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson liked to tout that the MWC had games on “national television,” it was spurious rhetoric at best. The mtn. and CBS Sports were and are invisible guppies compared to the viewership and distribution of the ESPN family of networks.
With its deal with the worldwide leader, BYU football TV viewership is higher than it’s ever been and Cougar fans, who can be found across the nation — and even the globe — have access to every home game BYU plays from their living rooms.
But ESPN is getting what it wants in return, too.
“It’s all about eyeballs on a game, and the one thing that ESPN will always tell you is they recognize that BYU draws eyeballs. That’s why they were keen to re-establish this relationship. Sometimes you don’t recognize what you have until you lose it, and that goes both ways,” Mikel Minor, senior coordinating producer of sports programming at BYUtv, said.
And he should know, having spent five years producing at ESPN before helping launch BYUtv’s new era of sports.
Minor recalls a meeting at ESPN where someone in programming listed 10 collegiate football programs on the board. He said that the numbers indicated, and the network recognized, these schools as having national value from an audience standpoint. Then, a circle was drawn around three schools that the network said it would take any time it could get them.
BYU was one of the three.
At every level of the department, BYU is benefiting from its relationship with ESPN. But this is clearly no one-sided love story.
And it continues to progress.
This summer, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe spoke of the challenges of scheduling as an independent and pointed toward its deal with ESPN as an important tool in that work.
“Our contacts at ESPN call regularly about potential schedule opportunities and to discuss possible matchups. This is another example of how the ESPN contract is a win-win situation for BYU,” Holmoe said.
Bronco Mendenhall talked of his involvement in scheduling and spoke to the magnitude of the deal with the worldwide leader in sports.
“The power of ESPN has absolutely amazed me to this point, of what teams will do to get on ESPN,” he said.
For BYU, that road to getting on ESPN was a long, painful one. But considering the point to which it’s come and the ongoing flourishing of the relationship the two parties see, it’s been worth it.
Ryan Teeples, twitter.com/SportsGuyUtah, is a marketing and technology expert, full-time sports fan, owner of Ryan Teeples Consulting Inc. (RyanTeeples.com) and regular contributor to LoyalCougars.com.
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