October 1, 2011

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On the Offense

Athletic Conference Changes Pay Off for Utah & BYU

John Coon

October 1, 2011

A crowd clad in red attire, gathered around the steps of the state capitol building on a hot July day, offered a perfect snapshot of the celebratory mood at the University of Utah. Hundreds of fans and supporters had turned out to celebrate Utah officially taking a giant leap from the Mountain West Conference (MWC) to become the newest member of the Pac-12 Conference.

When Utah athletic director Chris Hill took to the podium, he could not help feeling a heavy dose of satisfaction at how far the Utes had come in such a short period of time. Utah had finally claimed a spot within a conference affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series. The Utes went from crashing the BCS party to being an invited guest.

“It’s a great day to be a Ute,” Hill told the enthusiastic crowd gathered at the capitol.

The first day in July marked an equally significant transition for Brigham Young University. Although the calendar showed three days officially remained before July 4th, BYU had already begun celebrating Independence Day.

The Cougars followed in the Utes’ footsteps by exiting the MWC—a conference both teams helped to found when they broke away from the Western Athletic Conference in 1998. BYU made a decidedly riskier move. It chose to follow the example of schools like Notre Dame, Army and Navy and compete as an independent in football. The Cougars also joined with the West Coast Conference to provide a home for basketball and a host of smaller Olympic sports.

On the same day, Utah and BYU charted new courses in athletics and set in motion ripple effects that will be felt across both campuses.

The Viewing Audience
Before conference realignment shook the landscape of college athletics in 2010, Utah and BYU had done a good job of positioning the MWC as the strongest non-BCS conference in the nation. Utah had two bowl championships under its belt, and BYU had two MWC championships, among other prestigious victories.

But everything BYU and Utah accomplished in past seasons meant little in light of limitations each school endured with the MWC television contract. When the MWC broke away from ESPN in 2006, it put together a new TV deal with smaller cable networks CSTV and Versus. Under this new contract, the MWC created its own startup cable channel and envisioned spreading its athletic product into millions of homes. The new deal also created more Saturday afternoon kickoff times to maximize viewership.

Distribution proved to be a problem in the beginning as the new Mtn. channel was available in little more than 1 million homes nationwide. Decreased national TV exposure did not sit well with either BYU or Utah. The Cougars were especially upset when Comcast—the cable corporation that owned half of the Mtn. network—invoked a hidden contract clause preventing BYU from rebroadcasting games on its own network or originating broadcasts of home football and basketball games not covered by one of the MWC TV partners.

“It was frustrating for us to have men’s basketball games available and not be able to broadcast them,” says Duff Tittle, BYU’s associate athletic director over communications.

A lack of TV exposure made all the difference for the Cougars when conference realignment swept through the college landscape like a tidal wave in 2010. BYUtv reached 60 million homes through more than 600 cable systems and major satellite carriers such as DISH and DirecTV—a distribution more than 10 times greater than the Mtn. network. Yet it sat unused because of the conference TV contract.

BYU began exploring its options as early as 2008. The Cougars considered joining another conference, forming a brand-new conference or simply going independent. When Utah accepted an invitation to join the Pac-12 last summer, it simply sped up the timetable.

Within a couple of months, BYU decided to chart its own course as an independent. The move was based on two factors: increasing exposure for the entire athletic program and letting more BYU fans see their team in action.

“It came to a point where in order to get the things that we had bargained for, we were going to have to somehow be out from underneath that TV contract,” says BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. “It really didn’t have anything to do with the Mountain West Conference schools. Now some of those schools didn’t really understand our situation. But we understood it fully and so did the television partners who chose not to give us the things they told us they would.”

A dramatic increase in TV revenue will be a boon to both universities. In their final MWC season, Utah and BYU had to share $1.2 million worth of TV revenue with seven other schools. Outside of the MWC, that number is set to multiply many times over.

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