It’s been nearly nine years since BYU announced that it would embark on its current path of football independence and while there have been bumps and pitfalls along the way, the bedrock of the move was always its broadcasting deal with ESPN.
With that contract expiring, Cougar fans have been anxious to hear that it will be renewed — with the lurking fear that there would be a split and BYU would be left out in the cold.
Cougar director of athletics Tom Holmoe didn’t completely put those concerns to rest at Tuesday’s annual BYU football Media Day at the BYU Broadcasting Center in Provo, but he emphasized that contract is almost done.
“We are in a good spot,” Holmoe said. “We are at the tail end of good negotiations. There is the home games but then there is also the bowl series. The bowl games are the main reason it has taken more time to get to the end.”
He explained that the original BYU contract had a lot of specific bowls listed but the new contract will have more nuances.
“This time there may be some primary games but there might be opportunities to get out of those to get into other bowls,” Holmoe said. “Some of the bowls pit maybe the No. 7 team from the Big 10 vs. the No. 6 team from the SEC. If one of those conferences can’t fill those slots, contractually we might be able to get into those bowls. ESPN is working with the conferences and the bowls to take care of everyone.”
Even though some Cougar supporters worried that BYU’s recent football mediocrity (20-19 in the last three seasons) would make the Cougar brand less valuable to ESPN, both Holmoe and ESPN have consistently reported that the partnership has been favorable.
The Cougars provide flexibility for the broadcasting giant while ESPN gives BYU security in terms of scheduling and bowl prospects.
The pending announcement of a new contract isn’t a big surprise, since the two institutions had been working on the details for a long time.
This Media Day the Cougars were honoring 150 years of college football and BYU’s contributions to the sport.
Just about all Cougar diehards could cite the fact that BYU played at No. 3-ranked Pitt in the first live college football game on ESPN on Sept. 1, 1984, the first step in what had become one of the driving forces in the game for the last 35 years.
BYU also helped the evolution of the sport by embracing the passing attack, what turned out to be an exciting brand of football that put BYU on the map.
“I think BYU is important in the sense that is has a historic legacy in the game,” said Ivan Maisel, ESPN senior writer and special guest at Media Day. “It has a story that college football viewers and readers know and can plug into. They know that in the last almost 50 years of the game, you can’t tell that story without telling BYU’s story. In that sense, I think it’s pretty obvious why ESPN would be interested.”
Maisel said the business side and the contractual details aren’t something he would have any insight on but he does believe the Cougar football team is still prominent.
He pointed to the 2019 season, particularly the opening slate of hosting Utah, traveling to Tennessee, hosting USC and hosting Washington as a tremendous opportunity for the Cougars.
“I think this is a big year,” Maisel said. “I don’t want to oversell it but it is such a great schedule to use as a booster rocket. I think in all four of the games at the outset of the schedule you can paint a scenario where BYU wins. The fact that everybody is blowing smoke up Utah’s skirt right now and has been all year, it’s tailor-made for BYU. The fact that BYU had some success it can build on last season and have so many young players coming back who got a taste of what playing well feels like, they can build on that.”
He said he sees Tennessee as being maybe a year behind BYU in the process but acknowledged that Neyland Stadium can be a tough place to play.
“Then BYU gets USC the week after it plays an emotional rival in Stanford and Washington is rebuilding,” Maisel said. “If BYU can get through that gauntlet having held their own, I think it will be noticed and will serve them well at the end of the season — if it comes to it — in terms of the committee.”
He said independence is a tough road but that if anyone is going to do it, BYU has the best shot with its national presence and BYUtv broadcasting capabilities.
Maisel isn’t sure how conference alignments may shift in the future but said the Cougars need to get those big wins to put themselves in position to be a high-profile addition.
“Winning cures a lot of ills,” Maisel said. “That’s so profound, isn’t it? TCU is a great example. In the 20 years since the dissolution of the Southwest Conference to now, it was in four different conferences. They found the right guy to run the program. They are in a fertile recruiting ground but Gary Patterson wasn’t doing it with blue-chip guys. He was just better at evaluating talent than a lot of the other teams in Texas. You win, then people like you.”
The fact that the Cougars haven’t put together a special season in over a decade has not shown the true breadth of the BYU fanbase but Maisel said the respect for the program is still evident.
“The minute they beat Wisconsin, boom, they were in the polls,” Maisel said. “I think that speaks to BYU’s stature, provided they win. If they get off to a good start, people will notice and pay attention. The foundation is there. BYU just needs to get the rest of it instruction.”