Scott D. Pierce: ESPN is still in love with BYU football
Some Utah fans suggest it as an insult. Some BYU fans quietly worry about it.
In the second year of a seven-year TV deal with ESPN, is the worldwide leader in sports unhappy because the Cougars haven't delivered on the field?
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisitions. "We are thrilled with our partnership with BYU. And I don't use that word lightly. We are genuinely thrilled."
C'mon, really? Isn't ESPN disappointed with the Cougars' 6-4 record? With losses in pretty much all of its big games?
"On the contrary, I've been thrilled with our relationship with them," Ben-Hanan said. "We couldn't be happier."
Ben-Hanan is an upfront guy. And although I pressed him to the point of annoying him, he never equivocated.
On the contrary, he sounded entirely upbeat about the Cougars. A segment of BYU's fan base is less than forgiving of narrow losses to Utah, Boise State and Notre Dame, but ESPN's chief college football executive said, "They've had some bad luck, but to me they've had a great season."
What's most important is that, while the scoreboard hasn't always looked so great, they've been good when the ratings come in.
"Just looking at the numbers," Ben-Hanan said, "the two Thursday games early in the season [vs. Washington State and vs. Boise State] both out-rated the Thursday average so far this year. They are absolutely pulling their weight. That's just a fact."
And while BYU administrators have a reputation for being, well, difficult just ask their former Mountain West Conference compatriots Ben-Hanan sings the praises of working with them.
"They've helped us out with some games on Thursday and Fridays," Ben-Hanan said. "They're great to work with."
And in Year 2 of BYU's seven-year agreement, "I think that the exposure has been outstanding for them," Ben-Hanan said. As per the agreement, one home game (vs. Weber State) aired on BYUtv; three were on ESPN; one on ESPN2; and one on ESPNU.
"And when we can get them, even in road games, that's great," said Ben-Hanan. ESPN is picking up all four of BYU's away games that were available to them this season; it even aired the Georgia Tech game in some areas on ESPN3.
And ESPN continues to help BYU with scheduling. ESPN reaches out to BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe "when we see something that might make sense. We try to get him in touch with a school if we hear something whether it's an availability or if they have an interest in doing a home-and-home or any kind of deal."
"We're always there to assist, as we would with any of our conference partners," said Ben-Hanan, who acknowledged that dealing with BYU is different than dealing with any other college football partners because, understandably, "It's different dealing with an institution as opposed to dealing with a conference dealing with one school instead of dealing with 10, 12, 14 schools."
But that's not a bad thing. And Ben-Hanan remains unflaggingly upbeat about the Cougars.
"They're certainly a national brand," Ben-Hanan said. "That's been borne out here. We're thrilled to be in a long-term deal with them
" We're excited for the present, we're looking forward to the future."
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.