As BYU continues as a college football independent in partnership with ESPN, it's time to ask an important question: Is it worth it for BYU to move games from Saturdays to Thursdays or Fridays to gain more national exposure?
ESPN just moved BYU's game at Boise State from Saturday to Friday for TV reasons. BYU will now play five non-Saturday games: at UConn (Friday), vs. Houston (Thursday), vs. Utah State (Friday), at UCF (Thursday) and at Boise State (Friday). These games have a greater chance of being on ESPN or ESPN2 than BYU's Saturday games, which will likely be televised on ESPNU, ESPN3, CBS College Sports or BYUtv.
The TV network on which BYU plays makes a big difference. According to Sports Media Watch, BYU's four games last season on ESPNU or ESPN News averaged just 294,000 viewers per game. BYU's two games on ESPN2 averaged 1.28 million viewers, while the three games on ESPN or NBC during the regular season drew an average of 2.15 million viewers. That means games on ESPN2 draw just over four times more viewers than ESPNU or ESPN News, while ESPN and NBC bring in seven times or more viewers.
Little wonder, then, why some like moving games to Thursday or Friday for a greater chance of making it on ESPN or ESPN2. BYU Sports Nation co-host Jarom Jordan tweeted, "I would love it if every BYU game was on Friday. Seriously. That's great exposure. Lots of competition on Saturdays."
But not everything about playing on Thursday or Friday is sunshine and rainbows. Moving one game to Friday is a no-brainer, the Oct. 3 match with Utah State. That game accommodates LDS General Conference, so having it on Friday makes sense. Having it on ESPN or ESPN2 further sweetens the deal. But what about the other four games?
Scheduling non-Saturday games can hurt the team. For example, the Cougars play at Texas on Saturday, Sept. 6 and then have to turn around and play Houston at home on Thursday, Sept. 11. That's a very short turnaround against two talented teams.
What happens if a key BYU player gets injured in Austin? Losing those two days of preparation could come back to haunt the Cougars. Plus, Houston has a definite advantage as it plays Grambling State of the FCS the week before. It could easily rest its starters in the second half, keeping them rested and ready for BYU.
Potentially, the Cougars could be banged up after playing a tough Texas team before facing a fresh and talented Houston squad in Provo.
Does that really make sense? Is it worth giving a team such as Houston an advantage just to make sure the game makes it on ESPN?
The worst case scenario is that BYU loses badly to Texas in Austin and is so banged up that it also falls to Houston at home. National exposure would work against the Cougars if they lose both nationally televised games.
National exposure is nice, but BYU has to win the big games for it to mean anything. Last season, BYU went 2-4 in games on ESPN, ESPN2 or NBC. In 2012, BYU went 4-5 on those same national networks. While the Cougars received a lot of national attention after beating Texas last season, the loss to Utah on ESPN2 erased what national momentum the Cougars had gained.
Does it really do BYU much good to win at Texas on a Saturday only to risk falling flat at home against Houston on Thursday? It is more important to win games than to gain national attention. What good does it do to have millions of people across the nation watch your team if you lose?
BYU fans naturally want their team to become a true top-tier national brand. If BYU can become a perennial Top 20 program, networks such as ESPN will want to give BYU more of those coveted Saturday primetime slots on ESPN or even ABC.
Besides, non-Saturday home games are harder on Provo residents and people who actually want to attend the games. It's easier for people to attend games without missing school or work on Saturday than it is on Thursday or Friday.
At least BYU's games aren't doomed to the black hole that was the old Mountain West Sports Network. BYU's contract with ESPN allows the university to televise live games on BYUtv that ESPN doesn't pick up. BYU fans across the world can now watch almost every game, which was definitely not the case when BYU was in the MWC.
Thursday and Friday night games may be the best way for BYU to gain more exposure, but that comes with downsides and risks. The bottom line is, if BYU can up its game and become a true national power, the Cougars would not have to resort to moving games away from Saturday to gain national attention.
And that should be the ultimate goal.
Lafe Peavler is a staff sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.
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