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Partnership With ESPN Delivering Exposure BYU Football Seeks As Independent

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake smiles after talking with host Dave McCann on BYUTV during the BYU football media day in Provo on Friday, June 22, 2018. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – Nearly 36 years ago on an overcast Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, college football on TV forever changed when BYU took on No. 3 Pitt in the first-ever live college football broadcast on ESPN.

“I remember we were warming up and I looked up in the sky and I see the Goodyear Blimp,” said former BYU QB Robbie Bosco. “I looked over to one of my teammates and said, ‘this is big time.’”

The Cougars went on to win that game against No. 3 Pitt and eventually the National Championship in that 1984 season. But the impacts from that game against Pitt being on ESPN are still felt by the BYU football program today.

BYU and ESPN are gearing up for the first year of a new seven-year television contract –if COVID-19 allows– where the World Wide Leader in sports has first rights to all BYU home football games. It’s the second contract since the Cougars announced they were leaving the Mountain West Conference and joining forces with ESPN as an Independent.

Receiving national exposure was something that BYU was craving after being stuck in the Mountain West Conference’s lightly-watched TV deal. Through the first contract with ESPN, the tv ratings and ratings BYU football has wanted for years are now coming to fruition.

“Our goals in going independent in football included the opportunity to increase our national exposure and provide better access to our football program for our national fanbase,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said in January. “We also wanted to schedule home-and-home games with many of the storied football programs in the country. Thanks to our relationship with ESPN, we have been able to accomplish these goals.”

BYU Football TV Ratings on ESPN

From 2011 to 2018, BYU’s first eight years partnered with ESPN, BYU football games against Power 5 opponents on ESPN or ABC averaged 1.9 million viewers on games. By comparison, games featuring two Power 5 teams aired on ESPN or ABC averaged a little bit less at 1.6 million.

The 2019 regular season saw BYU average 2.2 million viewers in games against Power 5 teams on ABC or ESPN. The overall average from BYU games last season was 1.4 million viewers per broadcast.

These numbers come during a time where BYU has only had one 10-win season since becoming an Independent. What could those numbers look like if BYU found themselves in the national conversation late into the season? Regardless, ESPN appears to be happy with BYU has provided.

ESPN Senior Vice President Pete Derzis said in November that the relationship BYU and ESPN is “outstanding.” Long-standing relationship, great respect for what BYU has brought to the table, it’s a national program and we’re proud to be their television partner.”

Since 2016, the first year Kalani Sitake took over as head coach, BYU has had 31 nationally televised games which are good for the 19th most nationally in that time frame.

The relationship with ESPN continues to be strong for BYU just like it was in 1984. The “big time” games are still happening. Now the Cougars will look to produce those same big-time results on the field that they did more than three decades ago.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper. 

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