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.
The same is true of the ESPN networks. ESPN proper and ESPN2 are in the same number of homes. However, all things being equal, games on ESPN will usually outdraw those on ESPN2. This has been previously addressed, specifically in regards to BYU football and basketball last season. Thus far this season, ratings data supplied by Nielsen indicates ESPN broadcasts double ESPN2 audiences on average across all nights.
That same Nielsen data indicates that games on ABC are typically the big performers. ESPNU broadcasts lag significantly behind all other ESPN networks, but still generally drive higher viewership than the non-ESPN cable sports networks, such as Fox Sports 1.
TV ratings and game draws are complicated and factor in many variables — numbers are closely held within the industry. However, it’s clear for BYU that the more games on ESPN proper, the greater the exposure.
It’s also clear from ESPN's comments as well as ratings published by sites like sportsmediawatch.com that BYU outdraws the season average on each network.
Why does BYU play so many Friday night games?
Friday night games are usually on ESPN, and that means ratings and exposure, regardless of the opponent. With a good matchup, ratings are even better. For instance, next week’s Boise State at BYU game could easily be BYU’s most-watched game of this season.
What determines which channel BYU’s road games are played on?
The BYU contract with ESPN has absolutely nothing to do with games played outside Provo. Those broadcast details are based on the TV contract of the hosting team’s conference.
Some fans may wonder why BYU’s game against Houston this week is on ESPNews. The answer is that the network’s contract with the AAC, the conference to which Houston belongs, allows for games to be on that channel. To accommodate other contractual obligations and matchups on the other networks, Houston’s game was moved to ESPNews.
Again, the ratings will tell the story in coming weeks, but historically games on any ESPN network outdraw comparable games on other national cable sports nets.
Does BYU or ESPN have plans to use a sky-cam like those seen on the higher-end football broadcasts?
"We continually discuss with ESPN and our own engineering staff ideas to enhance the TV production design. For example, we're currently investigating the feasibility of installing a zip line or 'spider cam' system at the stadium to provide the dynamic overhead shots fans enjoy with top-level NFL and prime time network college football productions," Mikel Minor, who heads athletics programming at BYUtv, said.
In the past, these “spider-cam” riggings and lines were very heavy and required special support structures, which still today are almost always temporary and rented for games, even in the NFL. But advancements in technology have led to lighter lines, which may be rigged to the light poles at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Should it come to pass, the results would mean BYU would own one of the only permanent sky-cam setups in any football arena. However, it’s not something that would happen immediately, if it does pass the feasability stage.
Do BYUtv and ESPN use the same equipment and studios to film home games?
“We take feeds of several of their standard cameras, their JIB camera in the back of the end-zone, as well as beauty cams mounted across campus and outside the BYU locker room,” Edward Placey, senior coordinating producer, ESPN/ABC College Football said. “Along with the output of their program feed, this can often double our firepower in terms of replay sources to show to the audience and, as importantly, to the replay booth.”
Aside from this sharing of cameras, each broadcast uses its own equipment and staff in their respective productions. Regardless, collaboration is one of the aspects of the ESPN-BYU partnership that BYU highly values and was a principal reason the school left The Mtn. network behind.
What are the rules for what and when BYUtv can rebroadcast games?
BYUtv does a side-by-side broadcast of every home game ESPN does and is allowed to air it as a rebroadcast later that evening once the ESPN/ABC broadcast is concluded, usually about 9:30 p.m.
BYUtv also has similar rebroadcast rights for any road or post-season game for which ESPN is able to grant rights. Networks such as CBS Sports, NBC and Fox Sports don’t grant such rights to the school’s network.
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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