Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on BYU's position as an independent in the unstable world of conference realignment. Thanks to its partner ESPN, and its own TV network, the Cougars are receiving unprecedented exposure.
Coming Sunday: How BYU was able to capitalize on its vast resources, and work with the Pac-12, Fox Sports, and Oregon State, in a short period of time, to produce the BYU-OSU game in mid-October.
In its inaugural season as an independent, BYU sits in a unique position, and faces a unique dilemma.
Amid the unsettled landscape of college football, featuring conference realignment machinations with schools severing longtime rivalries and league affiliations, the Cougars have been targeted as a candidate to join the Big 12 or the Big East.
Athletic director Tom Holmoe has clearly stated that the goal is for BYU to compete at the highest levels of the sport. He and other administrators are exploring all of the options, and monitoring the latest developments.
Meanwhile, BYU is enjoying independence and an eight-year broadcasting deal with ESPN, as well as its own television network, BYUtv, which is light-years ahead of what any other school in the country currently has in terms of facilities and resources.
But the reality is, should college football move toward superconferences, BYU understands it can't afford to be stranded on an island, shut out of BCS access, and relegated to irrelevance.
So, here's the quandary: Does BYU surrender, or alter, its deal with ESPN to join a major conference, then risk having many of its games placed on regional networks with limited viewership? That is one of the major reasons the Cougars left the Mountain West Conference to go independent in the first place.
Right now, BYU's football program is receiving unprecedented exposure in terms of the number of games on national TV. Fans across the country, and around the world, are able to watch the Cougars play on a regular basis thanks to ESPN and BYUtv. BYU has already been on the ESPN family of networks seven times, with four more still to come, including the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30.
According to ESPN, the average total audience for the seven BYU games televised on the ESPN networks has been more than 1.2 million households, and over 1.6 million viewers.
For years, as a member of the MWC, BYU had many of its games broadcast on channels that many viewers had never heard of, let alone had access to.
With ESPN as a partner, the cumulative reach of its 13 games this season will exceed more than 1.2 billion households. Compare that to The mtn., which at the time it debuted in 2006, was available in less than 1 million households.
"When you look at our current situation with ESPN as our national broadcast partner and BYUtv as our second-tier partner, we find ourselves in an unbelievable circumstance," said BYU associate athletic director Duff Tittle. "To have 10 games televised nationally on the ESPN networks in year one of independence is just amazing."
Apparently, the nation is taking note, if a recent Twitter post by Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel is any indication. "This independence thing is working nicely for BYU," Mandel wrote. "I feel like I've seen them on TV more than any team outside of LSU."
In addition, the BYU-Oregon State game on Oct. 15 showcased the vast capabilities of BYUtv. Because BYU has its own HD broadcast truck, the school was able to work with various entities — the Pac-12, Fox Sports and Oregon State — to produce and televise the contest in Corvallis. That live broadcast, on KBYU, was the highest-rated college football game that weekend in the Salt Lake market.
Those impressive figures and achievements have been overshadowed by ubiquitous conference alignment reports and speculation, but the partnership between BYU and ESPN has been mutually beneficial.
BYUtv Sports coordinating producer Mikel Minor worked for six years at ESPN producing SportsCenter before returning to his alma mater last summer.
"People are tired of me saying this, but it's been validated by all of my associates at ESPN who have been coming to Provo and doing the games this year," Minor said. "They see our HD truck, they see our facilities, and they say nothing else exists like this in the country. It's so unique that a university has this quality of facilities. It's so similar to ESPN. And to have state-of-the-art resources that you have access to, it makes my job so much easier."
On game days, BYU and ESPN pool their resources, sharing cameras and other equipment. ESPN allows BYUtv to produce pregame and postgame shows, even tossing back and forth between the pregame show and the ESPN broadcast. Then BYUtv urges viewers to watch the game on ESPN.
"It's a great setting to do (a college football broadcast). The atmosphere in and around the stadium is great," said ESPN producer Steve Ackels, who oversaw production of BYU's two Friday night games in Provo this season. "It's a collaborative effort by ESPN and BYUtv to put on the best broadcast that we can. We realized that we're a team. There are cameras and equipment that we can share on site that make the broadcast better."
"It makes sense," Minor said of the BYU-ESPN relationship. "It's working pretty well."
Minor has decades of experience in the broadcasting business, which includes a stint working for Comcast in the Bay Area before going to ESPN. When it comes to conference realignment, "I think BYU right now is in the best position it can be with what's available," Minor said. "BYU is doing a great job of doing its due diligence — being very, very careful about not knee-jerking into something just because it's what everybody else is doing. When you have a broadcast partner like ESPN, that is your foundation, then a complementary component that you own, like BYUtv Sports, that has these resources and facilities that are unmatched, that's a pretty good position to be in right now. To say virtually every football game has been on national TV in some form, there's not many schools around the country that can say that."
Minor said working at ESPN was an "eye-opening" experience.
"It was shocking for me to see where the power base was, and how most colleges cater to ESPN," he said. "With that in mind, would it be advantageous for BYU to be in a BCS situation eventually? Sure, but under terms that are complementary to what we are. We shouldn't compromise an issue like Sunday play."
Tittle is optimistic about the future of the BYU-ESPN relationship. "I love using the phrase 'partnership with ESPN,' because that's what it feels like. I'm in contact with them almost every day," he said. "They're very professional. There's a reason why ESPN is the World Wide Leader in Sports. It's because of how they go about their business and how they treat their partners. We are very fortunate to have the relationship we have with ESPN."
That's BYU unique position. And its unique dilemma.
By the time the season ends — including the Armed Forces Bowl — BYU will have been on ESPN five times, ESPN2 four times and ESPNU twice. The Cougars will also have appeared once on BYUtv and once on KBYU/Fox College Sports Pacific.
The cumulative reach of those 13 games will exceed more than 1.2 billion households. Of course not all those household are tuned into college football. However, according to ESPN:
* BYU has been on ESPN networks seven times this year.
* The average total audience has been over 1.2 million households, and over 1.6 million viewers.
* The four ESPN games have averaged 1.66 million households, up an average of 12 percent from the BYU-Utah State game that ESPN aired last season.
The Oregon State game was the only game not shown live to a national audience, although the replay that evening at 8 p.m. was a national broadcast on BYUtv, which is in more than 60 million homes in North America. The live broadcast of Oregon State game was the highest-rated college football game that weekend in the Salt Lake market. It was the second-highest rated football broadcast of the entire weekend in the SLC market, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots NFL game on Sunday.
Sources: BYU and ESPNNOTE TO DESIGNER ... THE NOTRE DAME, UTAH AND BOISE STATE SCHEDULES DON'T NEED TO RUN IF YOU RUN OUT OF SPACE
2011 TV SCHEDULES
at Ole Miss ESPN
at Texas ESPN2
vs. Utah ESPN2
vs. Central Florida ESPN
vs. Utah State ESPN
vs. San Jose State ESPNU
at Oregon State KBYU/ROOT Fox College Sports Pacific
vs. Idaho State BYUtv
vs. TCU ESPN
vs. Idaho ESPN2
vs. New Mexico St. ESPNU
at Hawaii ESPN2
vs. South Florida NBC
at Michigan ESPN
vs. Michigan State NBC
at Pittsburgh ABC
at Purdue ESPN
vs. Air Force NBC
vs. USC NBC
vs. Navy NBC
at Wake Forest ESPN2
vs. Maryland NBC
vs. Boston College NBC
at Stanford ABC/ESPN
vs. Montana State KJZZ
at USC Versus
at BYU ESPN2
vs. Washington FSN/ROOT Sports
vs. Arizona State FSN/ROOT Sports
at Pittsburgh ESPNU
at California KJZZ/CSBA
vs. Oregon State KJZZ/ROOT Sports NW
at Arizona FSN Arizona/KJZZ
vs. UCLA KJZZ
vs. Washington St. TBD
vs. Colorado FSN
vs. Georgia ESPN
at Toledo ESPN
vs. Tulsa CBSSN
vs. Nevada Versus
at Fresno State ESPN
at Colorado State The Mtn.
vs. Air Force Versus
at UNLV CBS SN
vs. TCU Versus
at San Diego State CBS SN
vs. Wyoming The Mtn.
vs. New Mexico The Mtn.